Naming Kaya Henderson to schools post is a great step for D.C.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 8:42 PM

MAYOR VINCENT C. GRAY (D) is expected to announce Wednesday Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson as his choice to lead the District's schools. In tapping Ms. Henderson to replace former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, with whom she worked closely to jump-start the nation's worst public school system, Mr. Gray showed his commitment to continuing the education reforms started by his predecessor. Of all the issues facing the District, nothing is as challenging - or as critical - as improving a system that for too long took no responsibility for the failure of its students.

Ms. Henderson brings many strengths to the job. An alumnus of Teach for America, she worked with Ms. Rhee at the New Teacher Project, where she managed the D.C. Teaching Fellows program and became expert in the D.C. labor practices that tolerated ineffective teachers. Most appealing is her determination to set high expectations for students and her belief that all children - no matter their family situation, income or background - can achieve. "Our responsibility is to deliver the goods, no matter what the situations our students are in. The reform is in the schoolhouse," she told a gathering of principals in August.

Ms. Henderson's appointment will bring much-needed stabilization to the system. Many lower-ranking officials recruited by Ms. Rhee and attracted by the prospect of serious reform will feel comfortable staying on. Ms. Henderson also will be able to recruit strong new colleagues as needed and maintain the private financial support that Ms. Rhee managed to attract.

Some of the hard work of school reform has been done - closing underutilized schools, making the central office work better, winning a teachers contract that serves student interests - and the schools overall show promising signs of improvement. Ms. Henderson described it to us as "a system just beginning to believe in itself . . . with a sense of possibility other than being the worst in the country." Nonetheless, huge problems remain: Far too many students can't read or do math at grade level, and far too many drop out before graduating. Test scores have risen, but a coherent classroom curriculum is nonexistent. Further change is needed and some moves - closing more schools, dismissing teachers who don't produce results - will be controversial. Leaner budgets will add to the challenge.

Mr. Gray, The Post's Bill Turque has reported, never seriously considered any other candidate. Some believe he should have cast a broader net, but the mayor sensibly argued that there is no better way to see whether someone is suited to a job than watching her perform. Ms. Henderson has a different style than the woman she replaces, and there will be a learning curve in moving from deputy to taking charge. But it bodes well that she has managed, over the past five months, to win over both critics and fans of Ms. Rhee. Her appointment, with the mayor's implicit support for continued reform, is a hopeful moment for the city's schools.

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