Kaya Henderson was for years the right-hand woman to an education pioneer who gained celebrity status.
Now, she’s gaining household recognition as the chancellor of D.C. public schools instead of serving in the No. 2 spot to Michelle A. Rhee, a controversial figure who stepped aside in October as Mayor Vincent C. Gray started his transition into office.
Mr. Gray tapped Ms. Henderson to replace Ms. Rhee, an aggressive chancellor under former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty who emphasized new approaches to academics while firing underperforming personnel and closing schools.
Today, Ms. Henderson takes on a system facing friction over how teachers should be evaluated and an investigation into alleged cheating in prior years. Yet she is enjoying her transition from the quintessential deputy to the person at the top.
“It’s very different. It means I have to go to the grocery store looking halfway decent,” she quipped, during an interview with The Washington Times at DCPS headquarters. “I run into people everywhere I am.”
Ms. Henderson said her public interactions “keep her ear to the ground” to both praise and complaints about the city’s 45,000 students and 123 schools.
Critics said the city should have conducted a national search for its next schools chancellor, arguing Ms. Henderson would have risen to the top if she was indeed the best candidate.
“The reason I stuck around was because principals and teachers were calling me saying, ‘Please stay, don’t go, we like your leadership style, we think that we are on a positive trajectory and we want to keep that going.’ ” Ms. Henderson said. “So I think people understand that I am serious about some of the reforms that we put in place, as was Michelle. But I think how I interact with people is very different.”
To be sure, her approachability and outreach efforts impressed D.C. Council members, who in June unanimously confirmed her as chancellor.
Among her most embraced and oft-repeated mantras about the next four years is: “Great schools, great people, great community connections,” with modernized school buildings and safe environments.
Ms. Henderson, 41, grew up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in Westchester County just north of the Bronx.
She went to a public elementary before enrolling in an all-girls Catholic middle school, “because the middle schools in our town didn’t meet my family’s expectations.”
She graduated from a public high school and attended Georgetown University, majoring in international relations with a concentration in Latin American studies. Her foray into the educational world, it seems, was more of an accident than a lifelong dream.
Watching friends travel abroad, Ms. Henderson thought: “There are significant issues here that I could have an impact on, the greatest of which seemed to be education.”
She said educational consulting appealed to her, but knew she needed classroom experience to be taken seriously. Through Teach for America, she taught Spanish to middle-schoolers in south Bronx.
“It was only about four miles from where I grew up, but it might as well have been on the other side of the world,” she said. Her students “were vibrant and bright, and when held to high expectations could rise to the occasion, but people had kind of given up on them because of the community in which they lived.”
Ms. Henderson became a recruiter for Teach for America, rising to national director of admissions. She became executive director for the organization’s chapter in the District.
That was 14 years ago, and she had a front-row seat for a “dysfunctional” system that couldn’t even start the school year on time because of leaky roofs and other infrastructure issues.
“I felt like, well this is the nation’s capital,” Ms. Henderson said. “Shouldn’t we be able to do this?”
After 3 1/2 years on the job, a Teach for America friend - Ms. Rhee - asked her to be vice president at her new consulting firm, the New Teacher Project. Ms. Henderson served in that capacity for seven years, gaining D.C. contacts along the way.
When Ms. Rhee was tapped by Mr. Fenty to be chancellor, she went to Ms. Henderson and asked, “‘Should we do this?”
“I said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Ms. Henderson recalled. “We’d worked with schools districts across the country, begging them to prioritize teacher quality, and this would be our chance to show what can happen when we put that at the forefront.”
They made a major impact on D.C. schools by cutting teacher rolls and creating a new teacher-evaluation system known as IMPACT - all the while creating frequent friction with the teachers union.
“When you come into a completely dysfunctional system, you have to do some very difficult things in order to turn the tide, right?” Ms. Henderson said.
She has faced challenges in her first months in office, including defense of the IMPACT system and an investigation into a high number of erasures on standardized tests since 2008.
IMPACT is comprised of five observations a year by administrators and “master educators”; much of a teachers’ evaluation score is tied to student achievement.
“What we’ve said very firmly is you can’t be a successful teacher unless your students are successful,” Ms. Henderson said.
Some teachers said they enjoy the feedback and those who get consistently high marks ask to be left alone, she added.
Last week, Ms. Henderson said she welcomes the Department of Education assisting the District’s inspector general’s investigation into allegations of cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.
She says she is merely taking on the challenges faced by every urban school district, notably the achievement gap between haves and have-nots and how to use education to disrupt the cycle of poverty.
Ms. Henderson said she “won’t make excuses and say that kids can’t learn because of their background.”
“I don’t control what happens in my children’s community,” she said. “I don’t control what kind of parents they get. I don’t control how much money they make, their families make. But what I do control is the quality of education that we provide to them within the eight hours a day and five days a week that we have them.”