Realizing 'the ability to change children's lives'

By Bill Turque
Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Kaya Henderson took over as the District's lead negotiator for contract talks with the Washington Teachers' Union, she opened the discussions on an unlikely note. Instead of talking about salary schedules or work rules, she asked those at the bargaining table to talk about the student who had made the biggest impact on their careers.

"The very beginning of the negotiation was a shared experience around the ability to change children's lives," Henderson said, recounting the discussion at a D.C. Council hearing in January 2009.

Henderson grew up in a teaching household. Her late mother, Kathleen Henderson, worked as an educator in public schools in Yonkers, N.Y.; New York City; and Long Island, N.Y., and was a principal by the age of 30, according to biographical details released by the District (Henderson declined interview requests Wednesday).

After graduating from Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High School and gaining a bachelor's degree in international relations and a master's in leadership from Georgetown University, she taught middle school Spanish in the South Bronx. She also rose in the ranks of Teach for America, the teacher training organization where Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee began her education career.

By 1997, Henderson was executive director of Teach for America-DC, responsible for placing 170 teachers in more than 50 D.C. public schools, according to her official District biography.

In 2000, she began her professional collaboration with Rhee in the New Teacher project, the nonprofit that Rhee founded to recruit teachers for urban school districts. Among the organization's clients was the D.C. public school system. In 2007, she was Rhee's first appointment, becoming deputy chancellor.

Her roots in the District are more extensive than Rhee's. As a longtime resident of Ward 5, Henderson was active in community organizations and was visible at neighborhood establishments such as Colonel Brooks Tavern. Her holiday barbeques drew a cross section of neighbors and school community stakeholders.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said Henderson's style made an impression when the Fenty administration began an "unofficial blackout," in which most officials shared minimal information and often refused to testify at committee hearings.

"She was wise enough to create her own relationships," Thomas said. "She's a very personable, down-to-earth kind of person."

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company