Henderson coasting to confirmation

June 16, 2011

Acting Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson coasted through her D.C. Council confirmation hearing Thursday, winning pledges of support that assure her appointment as leader of the city’s public schools.

Seven of the council’s 13 members — including some who were outspokenly critical of Henderson's predecessor and mentor, Michelle A. Rhee — indicated they would vote to confirm Henderson next week. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) nominated her to lead the 45,600-student school system in March.

The council heard surprisingly conciliatory testimony from the president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, Nathan Saunders, an implacable foe of personnel policies imposed by Rhee and continued by Henderson.

Henderson pledged to continue what she described as the record of improvement that began under Rhee in enrollment, test scores, school renovation and the District's capacity to serve special-needs children. She promised to augment that record with other measures, such as a curriculum for teachers and a more robust community outreach effort to include parents in decision-making.

“While there is still much work to be done, we have succeeded in one critical and monumental task,” Henderson said. “We have changed the expectations that people have for” D.C. public schools.

Henderson also emphasized the importance of stability at the top of a school system that has had frequent leadership flux.

“As I watched other districts with long-standing leaders like Boston and New York, I couldn’t help but wonder what would be possible for DCPS if we didn’t start over . . . every few years,” she said.

The seven-hour hearing was a stark contrast to council chamber confrontations of previous years, when members bridled at Rhee’s sometimes-abrasive style. Henderson’s more personable demeanor has made a difference.

“The council is going to confirm Ms. Henderson,” said council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a frequent critic of Rhee.

Six others said explicitly that they would vote to confirm Henderson on Tuesday: Michael A. Brown (I-At-Large), Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-At Large) ,Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

Saunders stopped short of endorsing Henderson, saying that he respected Gray’s right to select his schools leader. But Saunders also said he had started to develop a productive relationship with Henderson, one in which they have discussed how to create a less “stressed-out” school system buffeted by the controversies of the Rhee years.

“The mayor’s choice has no sworn enemies in this union,” Saunders said. “We remain positive that the future can be bright.”

However, he added that disagreements over the IMPACT teacher evaluation system remain significant.

Before Henderson’s appearance, the council heard from about three dozen members of the public, a mix of supporters and critics. Several criticized Gray’s decision not to launch a national search for a successor to Rhee.

Others said that transparency and fairness had suffered in the city’s transition to mayoral control of the school system, which removed the old D.C. Board of Education as a check against executive power.

“Mayoral control and chancellorships have not worked for this town,” said Mark Simon, a D.C. schools parent and former head of the Montgomery County teachers union.

Mary Melchior, a mother of three at Langdon Education Campus, said the achievements of Rhee and Henderson “are questionable at best.” She challenged whether city officials are committed to a full investigation into recent allegations of cheating on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.

Henderson, 40, the daughter of a high school principal and a graduate of Georgetown University, was the only candidate for chancellor Gray seriously considered. She received endorsements from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the philanthropic community that underwrites many public education initiatives in the city.

Henderson joined Rhee’s team after Rhee became chancellor in 2007. The two share a long history, including stints in Teach for America and leadership of the nonprofit New Teacher Project. Henderson initially signaled her reluctance to take the job when it became apparent last fall that Rhee would leave. But asked outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in October to name her to the post on an interim basis. On March 9, Gray made her acting chancellor and formally nominated her.

“I’ve seen firsthand that she is a person with compassion, a person with drive, a person with wisdom and a person who focuses on results,” Gray said at the time.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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