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Kaya Henderson, emerging from Rhee's shadow, faces new challenges

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 9:44 PM

A picture of Michelle A. Rhee, from a recent Newsweek cover, hangs above Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson's desk. It shows her outspoken mentor and friend seated at an old-style classroom desk, smiling.

"It's the Michelle Rhee I know," Henderson said, "and it reminds me of how far we've come on education reform."

Yet, as she seeks to build on Rhee's accomplishments, Henderson faces challenges as daunting as the ones her predecessor did when she arrived in 2007. Some are as basic as seeing through a controversial new teacher evaluation system, managing severe budgetary pressures and finally developing citywide curriculums for reading, math and other subjects.

But more broadly, newly elected Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has made clear that he expects Henderson to push ahead with reforming one of the nation's lowest-performing school systems without provoking the furious community backlash that hastened the end of the Rhee era.

"It's not going to be good enough for Henderson to take what Michelle Rhee did and run with it," said Mark Simon, a parent at School Without Walls, former president of the Montgomery County teachers union and a member of Gray's education transition team.

Simon said Henderson must contend with teachers still seething at what they view as disrespectful and insensitive treatment from Rhee, an issue crystallized by an earlier magazine cover, from 2008, that pictured Rhee with a broom and a frown. "You couldn't replace all the people that despise what she did in the name of reform," Simon said.

Since becoming interim chancellor after Rhee's abrupt departure in October, Henderson has brought a more naturally accessible style to the job. At meetings around town, her entrance often comes with a broad smile and a round of hugs. "She wasn't a hugger," Henderson said of her predecessor.

Some skeptics have already suggested that Henderson is simply "Rhee-light." But friends say those who who doubt her toughness, or her resolve to preserve Rhee's emphasis on teacher quality and accountability, are underestimating Henderson.

"People are just starting to learn about her because she was under such a shadow with Michelle Rhee," said Jacques Patterson, chairman of the Ward 8 Democrats and project director at the Federal City Council, an influential group of business and civic leaders active in education reform. "Kaya is very focused, very clear thinking and knows where she wants to go. She can be as hard charging as Michelle Rhee but she won't be a bull in a china shop, breaking china."

Focus on priorities

Among the trickiest immediate challenges is instituting IMPACT, the teacher evaluation system ranked among Rhee's signature moves. The system ties teacher pay, in part, to student performance on standardized tests and makes it easier to dismiss those rated as poor performers.

IMPACT has won the devotion of many education reformers and the disdain of teachers unions, who worked hard to defeat Rhee's political patron, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). But it was not just the union leadership that has rejected IMPACT. School officials disclosed this week that 40 percent of the 636 teachers judged "highly effective" under IMPACT declined the performance bonuses because they involved waiving certain job protections.

The fiscal picture Henderson has inherited, meanwhile, is likely to require increased class sizes and, possibly, furloughs and layoffs, both at the school level and in the central office. Despite a systemwide enrollment that stabilized last year after decades of decline, the District still has under-populated schools that could face closure in the next couple of years.

Budget concerns have contributed in part to the shedding of some smaller Rhee projects, such as the Saturday Scholars test-prep program and Capital Gains, the middle school experiment in cash for good grades and behavior.

But Henderson said she views them as an opportunity "to focus on a few key priorities that are the absolute levers" for raising student achievement.

Class size, with some exceptions, is not necessarily one of them. Many classrooms in the system are under the limits set by union contract and will likely get larger. Henderson said that the numbers of students in a class is less important that the caliber of the teacher leading them.

"Forty kids are better served by one highly effective teacher than splitting that class into two classes of 20" with one led by a mediocre teacher, she said.

Her own agenda

At the same time, Henderson has quietly been setting her own agenda. After listening at length to parents, teachers and community leaders, she reversed two of Rhee's most visible decisions.

Last week, she sent Dana Nerenberg, Rhee's controversial choice to replace Hardy Middle School Principal Patrick Pope, back to her original elementary school post. Henderson also reclaimed Dunbar High School from Friends of Bedford, the private management firm Rhee hired in 2008, after widespread complaints about discipline, safety and instruction.

"I think Michelle might have provided Friends of Bedford more opportunities to correct the situation at Dunbar," Henderson said.

She has also started filling large gaps in the unfinished reform effort that Rhee left behind. Much of the work is gritty and less headline-ready than Rhee's operatic fights with the teachers union or the D.C. Council.

One major push is the development of a curriculum - a basic systemwide guide specifying what to teach and when - something that D.C. schools have not had in many years. In its place has been a set of broad standards describing what students need to know for standardized tests, leaving teachers and principals to figure out how to meet them.

"The real hard work, the next frontier, is around what is happening in the classroom," she said. That includes a districtwide arts and music plan, something schools have also lacked, despite Rhee's decree that every school have a music and arts teacher.

At a recent meeting of her "Principals Cabinet," a cross section of school leaders, Henderson described her goal as " a curriculum that does everything that people in Beverly Hills would be happy with their kids learning, and then figure out the right interventions and support mechanisms in place to ensure our kids can meet it."

Henderson is also rethinking the strategy for engaging parents and community leaders. Rhee spent countless hours at often sparsely attended evening meetings, talking earnestly about her plans and ideas. But some parents and other community members felt excluded, either because they never heard the message or because they thought Rhee was not serious about listening to them.

While evening meetings will likely continue, Henderson said it simply isn't realistic to expect significant parent turnouts at the end of exhausting days of work and parenting. Toward the end of her tenure, Rhee's operation became more adept at using new social networking tools to reach out. But Henderson said the school system has barely scratched the surface.

She wants to make more aggressive use of technologies, such as texting, Twitter, Facebook and IdeaStorm, not just to push information out but to create a dialogue with constituents.

"I think the Facebook people have really thought about how you build community using technology," she said. "And I think we can learn from that. How do we create opportunities for parents to engage with us in a very authentic way using technology?"

A different tone

When Henderson does meet with school communities, the tone is different even if the substance remains the same. At River Terrace Elementary School in Northeast Washington on Jan. 12, Henderson spent more than two hours listening to impassioned pleas from parents, staff members, students and alumni, asking her to reconsider a proposal to close the lightly enrolled school in June.

It was a familiar scene from the Rhee era, which had 27 school closures. The evening was filled with accusations of injustice, disregard for children and a larger plan to destabilize the neighborhood. Henderson ended the meeting with a distinctly un-Rhee-like statement.

"What you said here tonight spoke to my heart," she said, promising that they would "work together" to see what could be done.

Later, however, driving back downtown in her official SUV, Henderson said the under-enrolled school would be difficult to save.

"The real challenge in this job," she said, "is that everyone has a compelling reason why their program should be a high priority."

Another challenge is getting comfortable with her new notoriety. Henderson discusses the details of her life outside the chancellor's office cautiously. She lives in Brookland with her long-term boyfriend. She shares parenting responsibilities with him and the mother of his two sons, ages 14 and 5, who both attend D.C. public schools.

One afternoon this month when snow and sleet blanketed the area, Henderson took the 5-year-old to the Build-A-Bear Workshop at National Harbor, a reward for good behavior.

"I'm the backup, the clean-up player," Henderson said. "Mom does her thing; dad does his thing; and I'm there to provide support."

She is a longtime Georgetown basketball season ticket-holder, where she got undergraduate and graduate degrees. ("They've got all my money," she said.) Henderson tries to get to games once a week and doles out other tickets to staff members she considers deserving. This month, a pair went to Sousa Middle School Principal Dwan Jordon, but only after he agreed to lead a discussion at the next monthly "Principals Academy" meeting.

"There has to be a hook," she said. "Can't just go to the game for free."

Like Rhee, Henderson works all hours. Among the juices and Arizona iced tea in the small refrigerator under her desk were several cans of Red Bull. One 5:30 a.m. e-mail said: "Once a month, you've gotta pull an all nighter to get caught up. A bad habit, but very effective."

Gray appointed Henderson through June, but there are no indications that he has launched the kind of outside search that would have to be well underway if he wanted someone else in place by the end of the academic year. Although Gray is legally bound by a formal review process to name a new school leader, he also said last month: "I'm not going to lie to you, I really like Kaya."

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the influential network of private philanthropic donors who supported Rhee's initiatives, have also sent positive signals. Although it is early, her stock with the D.C. Council is high. Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said she handled the turbulent environment surrounding her interim appointment with skill and grace.

"For someone to come in the way she did and operate to keep things moving, that shows the type of strength she has," Brown said.

This all assumes Henderson wants the job. She has expressed ambivalence when asked, which is either a decorous reluctance to appear too eager for the brass ring or a reflection of real doubt.

"People think that when you are an educator you clearly aspire to a superintendency or to be secretary of education. That's not true for me," she said. "There are a number of roles you can play in any organization, and the top dog is not always the most important one or the one that is best suited for you. There are absolutely reasons why I would totally want this job and absolutely reasons why I would totally not want this job. The truth of the matter is, I have to figure that out."

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