Gray vows to continue school reforms as he names interim D.C. chancellor

In a press conference at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C., Michelle Rhee will leave with unfinished business in her quest to improve teaching and infuse a culture of excellence in the D.C. school system.
By Tim Craig and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 12:30 AM

Vincent C. Gray promised Wednesday to move ahead with the District's aggressive school reform agenda even as he allowed its most visible leader, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, to exit the stage.

In a carefully choreographed news conference, Rhee embraced presumptive Mayor-elect Gray - whose reform credentials she questioned only last month - and offered an enthusiastic endorsement of her replacement, Kaya Henderson, a longtime friend and ally.

"The best way to keep the reforms going," Rhee said, "is for this reformer to step aside."

By elevating Henderson and prevailing on the school system's senior leadership team to stay through the end of the school year, Gray has adopted a team hand-assembled by Rhee and infused with her reform ideas. Those include closing the worst schools while implementing a merit-based evaluation system that would enrich the most successful teachers and push low performers out of their jobs.

The move was the first major personnel decision by Gray, the D.C. Council chairman who defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic primary last month. Gray is seeking to reassure parents and others that he plans to push ahead with changes to one of the nation's worst school systems after several years of advances in student performance. "We cannot and will not return to the days of incrementalism," Gray told reporters.

Gray said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that Henderson is among the contenders for the permanent post, making the remaining months of the school year something of a tryout.

Henderson has cut a different figure than Rhee, both in her time as Rhee's deputy and in her first moments in the spotlight Wednesday. She 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."

Rhee and Fenty, who appointed Henderson at Gray's request, also lauded Henderson. "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," Fenty said.

Although Henderson is from New York, she has lived in Northeast Washington for several years and has built roots in the community. As an African American, she might also have an advantage in defusing some of the racial tensions that dogged Rhee, whose support was strongest in predominantly white neighborhoods.

But while Gray, Rhee and Fenty sought to portray the transition as a "mutual decision," two people with knowledge of discussions between Gray and Rhee said that the Rhee abruptly told Gray last week that she was resigning and wanted out of the job as soon as possible.

Gray had not planned to address Rhee's status until after the Nov. 2 election, said people familiar with their deliberations. But Rhee's move forced Gray to act quickly to name an interim replacement. He tapped Henderson, 40, late last week.

Rhee referred questions to spokeswoman Anita Dunn, who denied reports that Rhee's resignation was abrupt. "It is false," she said.

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