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

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.

At a fundraiser Wednesday night, Gray did not directly address the question of whether Rhee resigned abruptly last week but said, "There's no question she played a lead role in this."

Although Gray does not know Henderson well, his advisers said he has been impressed with her. She often met with council members when Rhee was unavailable. Gray's advisers said he had been eyeing her as a potential replacement before Rhee resigned.

Lisa Raymond (Ward 6), a member of the State Board of Education who supported Gray, said she expects Henderson to emerge as a serious contender if she wants the job. But Raymond said that Gray should "have a process" in deciding the next chancellor. "The community has to be invested in what the next choice is."

Several friends and confidants, including Gray's priest, have lobbied him in recent weeks, encouraging him to consider Henderson because of her personable and collaborative approach.

"I think her and Michelle share the very same agenda in terms of education reform, but unlike Michelle, she has a little more down-home approach for moving the ball down the court," said the Rev. Raymond Kemp, a former parish priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. He mentored Henderson when she was was pursuing a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master's degree in leadership at the school in the early 1990s.

Kemp said that on the night of the primary election, he and Henderson exchanged text messages about the possibility that Rhee would be leaving. He also reached out to Gray and urged him to consider Henderson.

Her selection was praised by education professionals, including Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization that offers technical assistance to urban school systems and has worked closely with Rhee.

Gray "has in Henderson someone he can work with, someone who has been in the trenches of the reforms that Rhee has pursued who is well-liked and smart," Casserly said.

Henderson also drew favorable reaction from two of Rhee's highest-profile critics on the D.C. Council. "I think clearly one of Michelle's deficiencies was the lack of being able to communicate with folks," said Michael A. Brown (I-At Large). "Kaya, at least to me, seems to have a much better understanding about dealing with people and working with people."

Henderson wasted no time wading into the top job. She and Gray met for 90 minutes Wednesday in the chairman's office, a session also attended by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. As the meeting broke up, Gray and Henderson hugged but declined to answer reporters' questions.

"A lot has happened today," Henderson said, adding that she would begin interviews with journalists over the next few days.

At the news conference Wednesday, Rhee said that leaving after nearly 3 1 /2 turbulent years was "heartbreaking" but that 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."

"One of the things I've learned over the last three and a half years is that there is a tremendous amount of work to be done across the nation," she said. "Lots of communities that want to put these reforms forward."

Rhee, whose resignation is effective at the end of the month, moved quickly to turn the page and widen her stature as a national standard-bearer for education reform. Within an hour after the news conference, she went live with a Web site, michellerhee.org, and Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Rhee's blog has a copy of her resignation statement and a short biography. It also invites readers to "Share Your Ideas for Education Reform."

craigt@washpost.com turqueb@washpost.com

Staff writers Nikita Stewart and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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