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Kaya Henderson offers ‘state of the schools,’ describes D.C.’s progress and challenges

Jim Vance of Channel 4 news and D.C. public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson talk at Wednesday night’s State of the Schools event. (Brandon Best/D.C. Public Schools )

D.C. public schools chancellor Kaya Henderson talked about signs of progress in her third annual State of the Schools event Wednesday night, including a recently released uptick in graduation rates, new investments in electives and college-level classes in the city’s high schools, and more engaging courses system wide.

In a conversation with Jim Vance, an anchor for Channel 4 news, the chancellor also addressed challenges with working alongside one of the nation’s largest charter school markets, and concerns about high rates of principal and teacher turnover and a declining number of African American teachers in the school system.

The city’s public school system is growing. It’s projected to enroll more than 49,000 students, a fifth year of increases after more than a decade of declines. It also opened four schools after two major rounds of school closings in seven years.

“Overall, I am really proud of the progress we have made,” she said in a call with reporters Wednesday in advance of the event.

Here are some excerpts from her interview with Vance at Dunbar High school in front of an audience of educators, politicians and parents.

Graduation rates are up, but still far below national averages. How do you feel about that?

People want us to have instant success. It took the nation decades to get to 81 percent. We have been under an aggressive set of changes in DCPS for about eight years.

In a few short years, it moved from 53 percent in 2011 to 64 percent. Slow and steady progress. By slow, I don’t mean we are not acting with a sense of urgency.

Graduation rates surge for D.C. public schools, reaching 64 percent in 2015

Experence is a valuable thing. D.C. public schools hired 750 new teachers this year, including replacing 500 teachers. Why are they not here any more?

A number of people have been promoted into different roles, or they left because we told them or they decided that DCPS is not the right fit for them. Sometimes they feel unsatisfied and unsupported. Everybody romanticizes what it means to teach in an under-resourced urban public school system. Sometimes the reality does not match up with their expectations.

On the flip side, we retain 92 percent of our highly effective teachers.

You hear about a teacher shortage across the country, school districts that are opening with vacancies. We had 250 new vacancies this year, and filled them all. Instead of being a district of last resort, we are now a place were teachers want to come.

What is the situation with principals?

Churn or turnover in and of itself is not a bad thing. DCPS is a very different school district than it was. We are requiring people to do very different things, and the leadership profile has changed. I am pleased to say some principals have been with us the whole entire time.

The most important thing we can do to ensure principal effectiveness is to grow our own. Three years ago, we created the Mary Jane Patterson fellowship, where we tap our high performing teachers, and instructional coaches and assistant principals and put them through a rigorous leadership training program. It teaches them about teacher retention and how to support and develop their staff. It teaches them about the DCPS way.

The other thing is we hold principals accountable. When we look at their evaluation, we look at their teacher retention. If every year you are replacing a third of your staff, something is wrong. Right? And so we look at that, we have conversations and develop, or if they are not the right leader for DCPS, they move on.

One in four D.C. public schools has a new principal this year

A recent report showed that black teachers in the District went from 77 percent in 2003 to 49 percent in 2011. How did that happen? Are you happy with that?

My first priority is getting great teachers no matter what color they are. It’s also important to have representation and ensure young people can see people that look like them and see people that don’t look like them.

I don’t have all the reasons. Some of it is because we fired some people, I’ll be honest with you, but we didn’t just fire black teachers, we fired teachers of all stripes.

But it’s an important thing for us to keep in mind. I am particularly concerned about the number of African American and Latino male teachers in our schools. It’s very important for young men to see role models. But we are in a competitive field where our African American college graduates are a strong commodity and a limited pool. We are fighting to attract them away from other jobs.

The number of black teachers has dropped in nine U.S. cities

Across the city, 56 percent of students are in traditional schools and 44 percent are in charter schools. Is that a problem?

For a really long time, DCPS was not responsive to the needs of families, and families were stuck. They did not have choices the way other people did and so the beginning of the charter movement was how do we provide some choices and options for families and how do we create spaces that are free from some of the bureaucratic entanglements that I have to put up with so we can see innovation really quickly. Those are all good things.

I think what has happened is the charter sector has grown unchecked. We don’t have any coordinated planning, and so families are like how do I make sense of these two systems and when do we stop duplicating some of the things we are doing similarly and do we really believe that competition is the thing that provides excellence in the system.

The city is at a point where we need to make sense of how these two systems fit together.

What are you doing to keep new residents from moving out of the District when they have children?

That’s what we are working on every day, but I am not trying to improve D.C. schools just for the new residents, I’m trying to improve DCPS for the people who lived here and stayed here and we haven’t been delivering for them. They deserve a world-class school system.

But it’s important that in the city, people see opportunities for themselves and we haven’t done a good job of that. That why we are trying to build the best urban school district in the country.

We see different racial dynamics happening at different grade levels. I have some schools where you look at the pre-K programs and the early programs, and they are predominantly white, and you look at third, fourth grade and it’s predominantly black. That’s whack, it just is. We have to provide all our families with a through line so they can see themselves sticking around.

For 40 years DCPS was in turmoil, and for 40 years there were leaders who did not have the resources I have or the political backing that I have or the support I have gotten, and so it’s incumbent on us at this particular time to provide our families with the very best.

You don’t flip a switch and the school district becomes great, but we are doing the methodical work that I think makes this place more attractive to families.

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I am told you might want to move on in a couple years. If that is the case ... on your last day out the door in 2017, what do you want to look back and see as your footprint?

In 2017, I will have served in leadership at DCPS for 10 years. I think there is a questioning point: Am I still as good as the District deserves? Are there people who can do this better than me?

The answer might be yes. If the answer is no, you can rest assured there will be somebody who is able to continue the work. We shouldn’t have to look all over the country to find great leaders. We have great people in this city.

But I would like to come back and say I met the five goals of the "Capital Commitment" [strategic plan]: Achievement is up. Enrollment is up. Student satisfaction is up. I would like to be able to say that the citizens of Washington feel like they have a school district, that if it's not worthy of them, it's on the way to being worthy of them. And I would like to feel like people love working in D.C. public schools.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Jim Vance was recently retired as an anchor for Channel 4. Vance has recently given up co-anchoring the 11 p.m. news but is still an anchor at the station.