Kimberly Martin is now 8,000 feet above sea level, preparing to move to the humid flatlands of the nation’s capital at the end of the month, when she will start a new job leading Wilson, the District’s largest high school.

Martin, who has been principal of one of Colorado’s top-
performing schools, will replace Peter Cahall, who left abruptly in December after informing the community that his contract would not be renewed.

A national search yielded three finalists that interviewed with a panel of parents, teachers, staff and community members at Wilson in late spring. Martin was the group’s “unanimous choice,” said Kim Bayliss, president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization.

“She just comes across as very strong and competent and has the best interest of the students at heart,” said Bayliss, who liked the high expectations that Martin articulated and her depth of experience after a dozen years as a high school principal.

Martin will take the helm of Wilson, in affluent Northwest Washington, as the school grapples with continued growth and crowding. Despite boundary changes approved in August, the projected enrollment of Wilson is expected to push 1,900 students in the fall.

Kimberly Martin will be the new principal of Wilson High School in the District. (Christian Capasso/Aspen Journalism (Courtesy of Kimberly Martin))

Martin said her interest in education policy drove her desire to work in the District.

“D.C. Public Schools is the front-runner of school reform,” she said.

Martin has spent much of her career in Northern Ohio, working in high schools in Lorain, a small industrial city, and then leading a high school in Painesville, near Cleveland, for seven years.

In Lorain, she helped secure a $2 million grant from the Gates Foundation to create smaller schools within a school, a process that sparked an interest in national reform and policy issues, she said.

Martin said she applied for the job at Aspen High School after a job announcement got her thinking about what it would be like to work in a vacation destination. She was flown out for an interview, marking her first visit to the resort town, and she was impressed with the school.

Aspen has high proficiency rates on standardized tests and a rigorous International Baccalaureate program that nearly 80 percent of students participate in.

With just 560 students, 13 percent of them minorities, the school is smaller and less diverse than Wilson, which serves the District’s wealthiest neighborhoods but also draws many of its students from elsewhere in the city. Martin said she has a deep interest in urban education.

Martin said one of her most memorable experiences at Aspen High was leading a group of students on a “Civil Rights” tour of the American South, part of an unusual offering at the school that had students spending a week each year on various learning excursions.

During her time at Aspen, Martin had some flare-ups with teachers. She received a vote of no-confidence last spring from teachers, according to local news reports. Eric Hansen, a Uniserv director at the Colorado Education Association, declined to comment about teachers’ concerns.

Martin said the vote took her by surprise. But in retrospect, she thinks the teachers were upset about changes­ she made to the schedule, per a directive from the superintendent, to lengthen instructional time for math.

“I think making that directive and setting it up as a ‘have to’ and not a ‘want to,’ I think frustrated and upset some teachers,” she said.

Teacher relationships proved to be a trouble spot for Cahall. While he was popular with many parents and students, the Washington Teachers’ Union reported widespread frustration among Wilson teachers.

James Leonard, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Wilson and the building union representative, said teachers are excited about Martin.

“We are really eager to have someone who has a vision and is willing to work with us in a shared decision-making and collaborative way,” he said. “We think she is going to come here and do a great job.”

Wilson generally draws a lot of community attention, and while the dismissal of Cahall was controversial, so, too, was Martin’s introduction to the school.

Chancellor Kaya Henderson sent a letter to the community June 1 to announce Martin’s selection: “After balancing your input and recommendations with the needed experience and skills that research links to success, we concluded that your recommendation, Dr. Kimberly Martin, is the strongest candidate to lead the Wilson school community.”

Many were excited, but the letter also created confusion, because while Martin is pursuing a graduate degree, she does not have a doctorate.

Bayliss and members of the selection committee spotted the mistake immediately and said Martin had been clear about the status of her unfinished degree. The school system sent out an updated letter the next day, but the episode sowed suspicion among some that Martin fabricated her credentials.

Frederick Lewis, a school system spokesman, said DCPS, not Martin, made the mistake. “The miscommunication was solely an internal DCPS issue,” he said.

Martin’s résumé states that she is a “Doctoral Student” in an “Urban Education Program” at Cleveland State University and that she has completed her course work. Martin said that she is still working on her dissertation, which is about school-level decisions that can put children on a path to incarceration.