By Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

WASHINGTON — The head of the D.C. public school system, Michelle Rhee, said Wednesday she is resigning after a tension-filled, three-year tenure during which she gained a national reputation as a reformer and pushed out hundreds of tenure-protected teachers.

Ms. Rhee made the announcement at a news conference and said the thought of not being chancellor anymore is “heartbreaking.” Still, Ms. Rhee said education-reform efforts needed to unify around Vincent C. Gray, the Democratic mayoral nominee and almost certainly the city’s next mayor.

“We have agreed that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside,” she said.

Ms. Rhee took over one of the worst urban school systems in the country in 2007 with a mandate from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to improve them. Since then, she has arguably improved test scores but also angered many with teacher layoffs, firings and a brusque style.

Ms. Rhee’s departure is not surprising since she campaigned for Mr. Fenty, who lost his re-election bid in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

Mr. Gray said Ms. Rhee’s decision to step aside is a testament to her commitment to reform. The city needs a strong chancellor, he said, who will also gain community support for the reform process.

“We cannot and will not revert to the days of incrementalism in our schools,” Mr. Gray said.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement Wednesday, saying he was pleased the current management team would remain in place to avoid disruptions in the middle of the school year.

“Michelle Rhee has been a pivotal leader in the school reform movement and we expect she will continue to be a force for change wherever she goes,” he said.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten also praised Ms. Rhee’s commitment, saying that although the union had “legitimate differences” with her on how to go about reform they “never disagreed on whether the District of Columbia’s public schools were in need of reform.”

Ms. Weingarten also praised Ms. Rhee’s interim replacement, Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, saying she has had a “constructive and open” approach to school reform.

Mr. Fenty said Ms. Rhee will resign at the end of the month and thanked her for her “willingness to do what is right, even if it has political consequences.”

“People are touting D.C. as a model for how to attack bureaucracy and get results from an urban school system,” he said.

Mr. Fenty said he appointed Ms. Henderson as interim chancellor at Mr. Gray’s request.

Ms. Henderson, who was a deputy to Ms. Rhee in Washington and at the nonprofit New Teacher Project they previously ran to train teachers to work in urban schools, said she has been working to improve D.C. schools for 13 years.

“I’m excited about where we are,” she said, “and I’m thrilled the management team has agreed to stay on to continue this work.”

Ms. Rhee said she would take some time off to “figure out what’s next” for her.

“My goal is to continue to be able to serve the children of this nation,” she said, adding that many communities want to push forward with similar reforms as Washington.

Even before Wednesday’s official resignation, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey had called on Ms. Rhee as the ideal reformer needed in the poor-performing schools of Newark, N.J.

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