Kaya Henderson is interim D.C. schools chancellor
In picking Kaya Henderson as interim, the presumptive D.C. mayor, Vincent Gray, has selected someone completely in tune with Rhee on the fundamentals of education reform, especially the belief that teacher quality is the most important determinant of student success. She was Rhee's first appointment, named top deputy the same day Rhee was introduced to the District as its first schools chancellor. At the time, Rhee made it sound as if they came to D.C. as a package.
"I told Kaya, 'I can't do this without you.'" Rhee said at the time. "She's everything you'd want in a leader. She has an ability to motivate people. She's a critical thinker, and she's an innovative thinker."
Henderson followed Rhee from the New Teacher Project, where she served as vice president for the teacher recruiting nonprofit that Rhee founded and ran. Henderson ran the organization's D.C. operation, which had contracts with D.C. public schools to supply teachers. Prior to that Henderson worked for Teach for America--where Rhee began her educational career--teaching middle school Spanish in the South Bronx.
Henderson recounted her first impressions of D.C.'s struggling school system and her aspirations for change at a 2009 D.C. Council hearing:
"I was stunned at the lack of commitment to ensuring the highest quality educational force in the country," Henderson said "The District tolerated people and practices that other school systems would never accept. This administration has been and will continue to be incredibly aggressive in our efforts to improve the quality of our workforce because our students can't afford to wait until the adults get it together."
At an August meeting of school principals, Henderson offered a football-coach-style motivational talk, reinforcing Rhee's core message: that poverty and other conditions outside the classroom are not an excuse for poor academic achievement.
"Our responsibility is to deliver the goods, no matter what the situations our students are in. The reform is in the schoolhouse. You are here because we believe you are the right people to deliver this reform. The election is not our concern; the election is not your concern. Go hard, or go home!"
As deputy chancellor for "human capital", Henderson was a key figure in the controversial firing of 98 central office staff in 2008. She was also lead District negotiator on the marathon contract talks with the Washington Teachers' Union, which led to a labor pact that establishes classroom performance--rather than traditional seniority--as the main factor driving job security. The talks were at times deeply contentious, and teetered on collapse before the appointment of former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke as mediator. But Henderson was known to have a decent relationship with teachers' union president George Parker--a point probably not lost on Gray, whose primary campaign benefited from heavy union support.
While there is little daylight between Rhee and Henderson philosophically, her political and presentational skills might be better than those of her boss. That was the judgment of at least one senior education adviser to Gray in an interview several weeks ago about possible replacements for Rhee.
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