This story has been updated.

Perhaps being away from D.C. and among friends and colleagues made Chancellor Kaya Henderson feel comfortable enough to strip some of the official varnish off of her comments. The venue was last month’s NewSchools Venture Fund-Aspen Institute Summit in San Francisco, the annual invitation-only gathering of top-tier funders, thinkers and practitioners in the movement to overhaul public education.


Henderson, a veteran of Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, spoke at a session called “The View From the Other Side: Entrepreneurs Running Systems.” It’s pretty clear that she was talking about the challenge of mediating tensions between the city’s white gentrifiers and DCPS’s traditional African American constituency:

“I’ve got people who are moving back into the city and the people who stayed in the city and they make different demands and sometimes those demands are contentious,” Henderson said, according to my colleague Lyndsey Layton, who attended the summit. “I have people who are coming and want to reinvest ...(saying) ‘This is not good enough’ or ‘I don’t want those kids in school with these kids.’ I have to call a spade a spade. I need those families because all boats will rise together, while at the same time not alienating the people who’ve stayed in the system.”

Not exactly news, but also not the usual power-point oatmeal we get from folks at that level.

Henderson, reached late Tuesday, said she was speaking about a spectrum of differences in an increasingly diverse school system, not just race.

“It’s simple to think it’s just about race or class,” Henderson said. “There are clashes around technology, where a teacher wants to use a TV in a classroom and a parent says I don’t want my child watching TV. We see it in food. Some people are OK with chocolate milk and others don’t want their kids to have chocolate milk...I believe our job as a school district is for every single one of those families to feel that DCPS is their place.”

Henderson also used the summit to take a rare public swat at charter schools. Thomas Toch, blogging for The New Republic, reported that Henderson said it was DCPS, not the city’s 53 charter schools, that educate the city’s most vulnerable students.

“There is a subset of kids who cannot fill out a charter application,” Henderson said at the opening plenary session, according to Toch, senior fellow and director of the Washington office of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Later, Toch reported, at “The View from the Other Side,” she asserted that charters push out students with disabilities and other challenges. Again, this a charge often leveled in D.C. — and currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice — but seldom so frontally, especially in an audience filled with charter entrepreneurs.

“We become the default” for such students, Henderson said. “A lot of charters in our town don’t want them.”

Henderson is seeking her own authority to open charter schools, hoping to use them as a tool to improve DCPS. Her mission, she told the audience, is “to prove to people that you don’t have to go outside of districts to get great schools.”

Henderson said Tuesday that her point was to remind the gathering that charters are not the sole answer, and that they will never meet some of the essential needs fulfilled by traditional school systems.

“I honestly believe that the reform work is going to take all of us. But we have this pendulum kind of approach where it’s all one thing or all another,” she said.