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Michelle Rhee resigns; Gray huddles with her successor

Area residents react to the resignation of D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

At the New Teacher Project where she worked with Rhee, Henderson ran the organization's D.C. operation, which had contracts with D.C. public schools to supply teachers. Before that, Henderson worked for Teach for America - where Rhee began her educational career - teaching middle school Spanish in the South Bronx.

At a D.C. Council meeting last year, Henderson recounted her first impressions of the city's struggling school system and her aspirations to change it. "I was stunned at the lack of commitment to ensuring the highest-quality educational force in the country," Henderson said. "The District tolerated people and practices that other school systems would never accept."

At a meeting in August of school principals, Henderson offered a football coach-style motivational talk, reinforcing Rhee's core message: that poverty and other conditions outside the classroom are not an excuse for poor academic achievement.

"Our responsibility is to deliver the goods, no matter what the situations our students are in," she said. "The reform is in the schoolhouse. You are here because we believe you are the right people to deliver this reform. The election is not our concern; the election is not your concern. Go hard, or go home!"

As deputy chancellor for "human capital," Henderson was a key figure in the firing of 98 central office employees in 2008. She was also lead D.C. negotiator on the marathon contract talks with the Washington Teachers' Union, which led to a labor pact that establishes classroom performance - rather than traditional seniority - as the main factor driving job security.

But Henderson was known to have a decent relationship with Parker.

"I respect her because she is a collaborative person, but also a very strong reformer," Parker said Tuesday night.

Rhee's goals - higher student achievement, better teachers and greater accountability for their classroom performance - were generally shared by her predecessors. But with new powers putting the struggling school system under mayoral control, Rhee pursued the goals with an unprecedented zeal.

She closed more than two dozen schools, fired teachers by the hundreds and spent more than two years negotiating a labor contract that gives principals new control over teacher hiring while establishing a new performance-pay system that ties compensation to growth in student test scores.

Rhee also dramatically expanded the number of spaces in preschool, pre-K and Head Start, and opened the Early Stages diagnostic center to help flag learning disabilities in children ages 2 to 5. She piloted a program of "wrap-around" support services for at-risk middle school kids and launched a program of "themed" schools focusing on science and technology, world cultures and the arts.

"I'm shocked that she's leaving so quickly," said Ted Trabue, president of the D.C. State Board of Education. "I really thought [Gray and Rhee] would work something out so that she stayed until the end of the academic year. I thought it would have been in the best interests of the students."

Gray has said that he supports an ambitious program of school reform but does not think that change depends on a single person. In an interview with The Washington Post last week, he said that if Rhee left, he would seek a replacement who shares many of her values and is not a veteran who has spent several decades in top school jobs.

He ruled out Rhee's predecessor, Clifford Janey, whose name had circulated as a possible replacement. Aside from Henderson, other prominent names include Robert Bobb, the former D.C. school board president and city administrator who is now the fiscal overseer of the Detroit school system, and former D.C. State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist, now Rhode Island commissioner of education.

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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