Kaya Henderson is ready to rid herself of the habits she formed during more than five years as the head of D.C. Public Schools.
She is ready to stop shopping at Lord & Taylor 30 minutes before the store closes. She’s ready to go to a grocery store in the afternoon, not at 6 a.m. And she’s ready to leave the public spotlight as she leaves her job as chancellor.
“I am tired,” Henderson said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “One of the things I am happy to leave in this job is the very public-facing position.”
For a decade — first under former chancellor and lightning rod Michelle Rhee and then in the top postition — Henderson has worked to turn around one of the nation’s most troubled school systems.
Though the school system still struggles with vast gaps on test scores and graduation rates between white and black students, at the end of this week, Henderson will leave the school system on what she considers a high note: Under her leadership, D.C. schools have seen increased enrollment, better test scores and higher graduation rates. That has some wondering if she wants to move up in the world of public education, perhaps to become secretary of education if Hillary Clinton is elected president.
No, thank you, Henderson said.
“I am appreciative of the opportunity to serve in the government, but I would like to serve in a different sector,” she said. She plans to move into a more private life.
In her last days as chancellor, Henderson said she is spending a lot of time reflecting on her work. There also have been a lot of cupcakes arriving at her office, and her staff recently threw a surprise party, complete with a DJ and signs with the hashtag “Thank you Kaya.”
She wants people to see that D.C. schools are “up again, hot and sexy.” She believes the system is turning a corner, becoming more desirable even in the face of numerous education options for D.C. residents.
“Families who for decades have been fleeing the system are now putting their kids back, and we are happy about it,” Henderson said.
A former Spanish teacher and Teach for American executive, Henderson, 46, arrived at D.C. Public Schools in 2007 as a deputy to Rhee. Rhee had a combative approach to reforming the school system and an antagonistic relationship with the city’s teachers union. The city’s school system became one of the first in the country to judge teachers and principals based in part on how students performed on standardized tests. Hundreds were fired under Rhee, and more than 20 schools were shut down.
Henderson, a self-described people person, also shut down schools and fired teachers and principals, but her softer approach means she has largely been seen as a contrast to Rhee.
Henderson said the criticisms of her former boss aren’t fair. “In literature, people need a bad guy and a good guy, and they try to paint us like she was the bad guy and I was the good guy,” she said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Although she defends Rhee, Henderson said one of her hardest days on the job was under Rhee’s leadership, when she had to fire a couple hundred central office employees as part of a reorganization.
“I had to go all around the city and deliver termination notices to people, many of whom had been with the district for a really long time,” she said. The experience taught Henderson that it mattered how she went about letting people go and making other difficult decisions. “The worst days that I have had here are days when I felt like we haven’t treated people the right way.”
Henderson laid out five goals to meet by 2017. The district is close to meeting three of them.
She wanted to boost enrollment: It’s up 7 percent since 2011. She wanted 90 percent of students to say they like their school: 83 percent do. She wanted the graduation rate to reach 75 percent: The rate was at 64 percent in 2015, and the 2016 rate is slated to be released this week.
But the city’s schools are far from meeting her goals for academic achievement. She strove to have at least 70 percent of students scoring “proficient” on math and reading exams by 2017. That number is closer to 25 percent, but Henderson said she set the proficiency goals when the city was taking the DC CAS exam, not a national standardized test linked to the Common Core academic standards.
Henderson said her highlights have included sending D.C. students across the world for study abroad experiences and creating an intensive training program for school principals at Georgetown University. Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, one of Henderson’s pet projects, opened its doors in Northeast Washington to 110 students, all of whom are black and Latino males. The school is Henderson’s attempt to focus resources on improving achievement for minority males.
The decision to have an all-boys public high school has been controversial because there is not a similar high school for girls. Since the school opened in August, the American Civil Liberties Union has tried to pressure the district to change its admission policies.
“They are suing me, or will sue me, because I am not doing the same thing for girls as I am doing for boys,” Henderson said. “That’s the point.”
The school system’s research shows black and Latino boys need more help academically, while the girls in the district need different types of supports, Henderson said, mainly social-emotional resources that help them deal with self-esteem issues and relationships.
Henderson said that school systems for too long have looked at education as a one-size-fits-all challenge and have only recently begun to focus programs specifically on closing achievement gaps. The District continues to have wide achievement gaps, particularly for black males.
“We have just recently woken up,” she said. “We will begin to see results.”
Another one of Henderson’s priorities was to build better relations with the District’s charter schools, which enroll nearly half of the city’s public school students. Though the city’s relationship between charters and traditional public schools has received praise as compared to other cities’, Henderson said she thinks the two sectors continue to act as rivals.
“It’s inefficient,” Henderson said of the District’s 230 public and charter schools that serve 85,000 students. “We are spending too much on education across two sectors that are getting the same results.”
Henderson was particularly upset in 2014 when a science-themed charter school opened across the street from a science-focused neighborhood school in Eckington.
“The point is providing every kid in this city with a good education, so why duplicate resources in the name of competition?” Henderson said.
She would not say who she wants to see take the reigns of D.C. schools — she said her opinion does not matter — and that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) should be focused on listening to feedback from community members. Bowser hopes to name a successor soon.
Henderson’s departure doesn’t have anything to do with politics, she said, stating definitively that she has a good relationship with Bowser and wasn’t asked to leave.
But Henderson is eager to move on, choosing to leave early — she had planned to leave in 2017 — and in the midst of an academic year, in part, she said, to ease the long-term planning process the next chancellor will need to begin immediately.
Instead of overseeing an urban school system, Henderson will devote at least six months to traveling and spending time with her family.
She also will be listening to podcasts. She recently sent out a tweet asking for recommendations, and she didn’t want just those that focus on education. She received more than 50 suggestions, which she wrote all down on a piece of paper she keeps in a notebook.
She started listening to some of them, but the hour-long episodes are turning her off.
“I am listening to this stuff, and I am thinking, talk faster, get to the point,” she said. “I don’t have an hour to listen to these people.”
The frenetic pace of the chancellor’s job has made it very hard for her to focus on any single thing for much time.
That’s another habit she’s ready to break.