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Michelle Rhee resigns; Gray huddles with her successor

By Tim Craig and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 6:38 PM

Presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray introduced Kaya Henderson on Wednesday as the interim chancellor of D.C. public schools and vowed that reforms launched under Michelle A. Rhee would continue when he takes office in January.

"We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism," said Gray, appearing at a news conference with Rhee, Henderson and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who will formally appoint Henderson at Gray's request.

Later in the day, Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, met privately with Henderson for more than 90 minutes in his office in the John A. Wilson Building. They were joined for part of the time by Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, perhaps signaling that Gray and Henderson are already grappling with issues related to the District's large budget shortfall.

Gray and Henderson hugged as the meeting broke up. Gandhi declined comment as he left, and Henderson said she needed "fifteen minutes to breathe."

"A lot has happened today," she said, adding she will begin formal media interviews within a few days.

In Henderson, Gray inherits someone in tune with Rhee on the fundamentals of education reform, especially the belief that teacher quality is the most important determinant of student success. Rhee and Henderson worked together at the New Teacher Project, a teacher recruiting nonprofit group that Rhee founded and ran before she was appointed by Fenty in June 2007. Henderson was a vice president for the group.

She was Rhee's first appointment and was named her top deputy the day Rhee was introduced to the District. At the time, Rhee made it sound as if they had come to the District as a package.

"I told Kaya, 'I can't do this without you,' " Rhee said at the time. "She's everything you'd want in a leader. She has an ability to motivate people. She's a critical thinker, and she's an innovative thinker."

At the news conference Wednesday, Henderson told reporters, "I'm excited about where we are, and I'm thrilled that the management team has agreed to stay on to continue this process."

Gray said that while he has "no intention of micromanaging DCPS," he asked Henderson to keep the school system's senior leadership in place until at least the end of the current school year. Henderson is regarded within the Gray camp as a potential permanent successor to Rhee.

The group took only a handful of questions from a hotel conference room packed with journalists, and neither Gray nor Rhee shed light on what they called a "mutual decision" to part ways.

In a prepared statement, Rhee said that leaving after nearly 31/2 turbulent years was "heartbreaking," but she said Gray "deserves the opportunity to work toward his goal of 'One City' with a team that shares his vision, can keep progress going and help bridge the divide."

"In short, we have agreed - together - that the best way to keep the reforms going is for this reformer to step aside."

Rhee survived three contentious years that made her a superstar of the education reform movement and one of the longest-serving school leaders in the city in two decades. Student test scores rose, decades of enrollment decline stopped and the teachers union accepted a contract that gave the chancellor, in tandem with a rigorous new evaluation system, sweeping new powers to fire low-performing educators.

But Rhee will leave with considerable unfinished business in her quest to improve teaching, close the worst schools and infuse a culture of excellence in a system that has been one of the nation's least effective at educating students.

At the news conference, Fenty praised Rhee for taking on what he called "the thankless job" of running D.C. schools. He said she had exceeded his highest expectations during her tumultuous tenure. "It's not just the results all of you know so well ... but it's the excitement that she brought to the school system."

Fenty also lauded Henderson, saying, "I have had the opportunity to work with her, and I have as much confidence in Kaya's ability to run the school system as anyone who has ever known her."

The move won immediate support from the Washington Teachers' Union, which has long battled Rhee. "I think leaving sooner is better than later, so there will not be all this speculation," said union head George Parker. "Making a decision will relieve the tension."

But D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who endorsed Gray but has generally supported Rhee's initiatives, said: "I'm deeply disappointed.... We always heard it was about the children. I don't think it is good for the children for her to leave in the middle of the fall. I had always hoped that if she wanted to leave she'd be part of a smooth transition."

President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, commented briefly on the change in leadership of the D.C. schools Wednesday morning, saying that the president did not regret his decision to stay neutral in the mayor's race even though Fenty's loss led to Rhee's resignation.

"I don't think the president regrets not getting involved in a mayoral race," Gibbs told reporters at his morning briefing. "Obviously, the important work people like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan are doing needs to continue regardless of the outcome of elections."

Rhee's departure has been anticipated since Gray defeated Fenty in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary. She campaigned on Fenty's behalf and questioned whether Gray had the political will to make the unpopular decisions she thought were necessary to sustain school improvement.

Two weeks ago, Gray and Rhee met for about 90 minutes to begin talking about her future and the chairman's vision for school reform. Since then, the two have held several private phone discussions, said those familiar with the discussions.

Gray and Rhee agreed that the debate over her future was becoming a distraction for teachers, students and parents, people close to them said.

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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