Rhee's deputy is ready to carry on

(Ricky Carioti)
By Bill Turque
Friday, October 15, 2010

As Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee winds down a turbulent 31/2 years in the District, she leaves in her wake a question that will be largely Kaya Henderson's to answer: Can school reform continue with the same velocity and ambition under a leadership that values consensus and collaboration over blunt force and broken crockery?

Henderson's charge from presumptive mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) - who wants her to be his interim, and possibly permanent, chancellor - is to make sure that the answer is yes.

"I'm totally confident we can come together and push reforms with the same urgency," Henderson said in a phone interview Thursday (a request for an office visit was declined). She sounded upbeat but a little frayed from her Wednesday unveiling and a trip to Bahrain last week for an international education conference.

Henderson, 40, said she had no doubts about Gray's commitment. "If I did, I wouldn't have taken the job," she said. "I'm confident we're not going to have any problems."

Rhee appeared at numerous community forums, "listening" sessions and D.C. Council oversight hearings as she turned the system on its head, closing schools, firing teachers and principals and imposing a rigorous evaluation system for educators. But critics say she often sent the message that community engagement was an impediment to change, especially after declaring at a 2008 Aspen Institute education summit that "cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated."

But Henderson was a bit vague Thursday on what exactly she would do differently while driving the agenda of the woman she called "my friend, partner, mentor." What's clear is that the message Gray wants to send is really Henderson herself: a gracious but resolute African American woman with deep roots in both the education reform movement and the District.

In other words, Rhee without Rhee.

"Strong but extremely fair, and that's the part I like," said Ballou High School English teacher Vernon Williams, who logged many hours with Henderson as part of the Washington Teachers' Union negotiating team that helped hammer out a contract this spring. While Henderson was as tough-minded as Rhee when it came to insisting on provisions that made classroom performance a more critical factor in personnel decisions, she managed to do it without alienating those on the other side of the table, Williams said.

"We always had a better taste in our mouth dealing with Kaya," Williams said.

One of Henderson's assets is her familiarity with the District's education world. Rhee was a newcomer, but Henderson has lived in the city for almost all of the past 17 years, counting her undergraduate days at Georgetown University. She has lived on Capitol Hill, and she has owned a home in Northeast Washington since 2001. In the years before she became deputy chancellor, she was active in community organizations such as D.C. Voice, a group advocating for improvements in the school system.

"I am confident Kaya can keep things together," said D.C. State Board of Education President Ted Trabue (At Large), who worked with Henderson at D.C. Voice. "This whole arena is very familiar to her. She knows Washington. I think she'll do fine. We're in good hands."

Until her work life made it difficult, Henderson attended Judah Temple AME Zion Church in Bowie. She said prayer remains a cornerstone of her life. As she considered accepting the offer to become interim chancellor, she prayed with a Georgetown mentor, the Rev. Raymond Kemp.

"I am a very spiritual person," she said. "Kemp and I have prayed together and will continue to pray. My faith is incredibly important to me."

Some school advocates said they are looking forward to a period more focused on the substance of the school system's improvement and less on the burgeoning national celebrity of its chancellor.

"Kaya is smart enough to know that the public and parents are not interested in icons," said Elizabeth Davis, a veteran D.C. teacher and candidate for the union presidency. "They are interested in evidence that students at the low end are actually improving."

Henderson, a school principal's daughter from Mount Vernon, N.Y., first met Rhee in Los Angeles in 1992 when they joined Teach for America as young recruits eager to change the face of public education. "We were all sort of with the same pedigree," Henderson said. "We were hungry, driven, hellbent."

Henderson taught middle school Spanish in the Bronx and eventually became TFA's national director of admissions. By 2000, she said, she had grown so frustrated with how school systems recruited and trained teachers that she was preparing to enter Harvard's urban superintendent program - not to run her own district but to become a consultant.

Rhee lured her to do the same work for the nonprofit Rhee had just founded, the New Teacher Project, where she worked to recruit teachers for the District, one of the firm's clients. Henderson also helped write two of the organization's most influential reports. "Missed Opportunities" examined the questionable personnel practices of some school districts, including late-summer hiring decisions that cause systems to lose some of their most promising teaching candidates. "Unintended Consequences" studied the effect of collective bargaining provisions that restrict the ability of school systems to transfer teachers from school to school.

Henderson was Rhee's first hire when she was named chancellor, and many of their decisions have been informed by the findings of those studies.

Mark Simon, a School Without Walls parent and education policy analyst for the Economic Policy Institute, said he is hopeful that Henderson will not merely continue Rhee's policies but also improve on them, especially in the area of teacher professional development, which he says has been overtaken by the emphasis on standardized testing.

"I think the Kaya under Michelle Rhee may be a very different person than the Kaya in charge," said Simon, a member of Teachers and Parents for Real Education Reform, a D.C. group that supports some of Rhee's initiatives but has had issues with their implementation.

Perhaps. But anyone who doubts the closeness of the two education leaders need only have watched them standing behind Gray at Wednesday's announcement, whispering and laughing like middle school girlfriends as he spoke to a hotel conference room packed with reporters.

When her turn came, Rhee said, "I have the utmost confidence in her ability to lead this effort going forward."

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