Q & A with Kaya Henderson
This is the transcript of a Jan. 12 interview I did with interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson for Saturday's story, edited for clarity and length.
BT: How will budget cuts play out for students and teachers?
KH: We are trying to make some decisions. One of the places that we are able to realize savings without it being a shock to the system is by really maximizing the class size provisions under which we need to operate. Our class sizes in the district are much smaller than similarly situated districts. We're not even reaching the limits of the WTU contract around class size, which everyone agrees are fine.
BT: There's a point of view that class size is overblown as a determinant of success. Do you agree?
KH: So I'm not exactly sure where I come out on the class size issue. I get that if you have a smaller group of students, especially students who are behind where they should be performing, it's much easier to serve those students if you don't have 30 of them. At the same time I know for sure when you have an excellent teacher in a classroom -- and I've seen this -- that principals will put additional kids in a classroom, up to 40. And if the teacher can handle those 40 kids they are better served by that one highly effective teacher than splitting that class into two classes of 20 [where] you can't guarantee are both are highly effective teachers.
BT:: So its fair to say that class sizes will increase in some instances to try to effect savings?
KH: Oh, yeah.
BT:: What about closing schools? There are still some pretty lightly-enrolled schools, including some of the pre-K-8s. Are you going to look at closing more schools than you've already announced?
KH: For this year we are only going with closing the schools that we've announced. But I think long term we do have to ask ourselves the question of what is the appropriate number of students to effectively and efficiently run an elementary school a K-8, a middle school, a high school.
BT: Everyone is investing great hopes in whittling away at the cost of non-public special education placements as a way of freeing up money. But isn't that a process that's going to take years?
KH: I actually don't believe that we will be able to bring a massive numbers of kids back from [non-public placement] . On a very common sense parental level, if you secured a private placement for your kid because you think that's a better option than anything that DCPS has, when I call and say hey, we've got a great program that we just started here, you're not going to want to bring your kid back and take a chance on that. So I think that until we have established programs that have a track record of success, we'll be able to bring some back but not the quantity that some folks think. That being said, when we look at the distribution of the children who are currently being served in the non-publics, it's a significantly older population. And so a number of them we will be obligated to serve only for a short time moving forward. Then there's a huge gap in terms of the potential non-public population. And so what we are trying to do is figure out how we ensure that services are in place so that as those older students move out of the system we actually have the programs that can serve students instead of them opting to leave. The other part of the issue is early identification, which is why there has been such huge thrust around our Early Stages program. If you can identify kids with disabilities when they are 3 and 4, you can provide the services that they need before they get to the point where they need the extensive services that our non-publics provide. But the truth of the matter is it's going to take money to build the kind of special-ed programs that are going to serve our children the way they need to be served. And I think one of the challenges is, even if we are able to demonstrate savings in the non-public realm, I don't know that it's going to be enough savings to pick up and build a St. Colleta's state-of-the-art program. We're going to have to tackle that.
BT: What's the most surprising thing you've experienced since you took the interim job?
KH: I think that I was in my own little human capital world, and when people sort of think I was the deputy they think I was involved in everything. But I had a specific portfolio of responsibilities, and when you look at the work we are known for a lot of it comes out of the human capital shop. So I've been busy. But I think people's perception is that I was also overseeing everything and that was not the case. What has been surprising is now that I have the opportunity to really delve into some of the areas I only previously had a cursory knowledge of. And so its been exciting to dive into the other pieces and figure out how to put all of this together, and figure out what are the right set of levers to keep pushing this district forward. The real hard work, the next frontier, is around what is happening in the classroom.
BT: What's the most significant thing you've been able to accomplish?
KH: I think the most significant thing is disabuse people of this notion that school reform has to die because we lost our previous chancellor, or that we were going to go backwards or whatever. Keeping my leadership team in place through this school year was incredibly important. People who work in this building came here for the mission. They came here for education reform, they came to work in a dynamic, innovative environment. A lot of people didn't know what it was going to mean when Michelle left. But people want to continue this work. I see it acutely with our principals. Our principals want to be led and want to be managed by somebody that they trust. And so I think really the biggest thing that I have accomplished is helping people to breathe and keep the work going.
BT: Do you have many "What Would Michelle Do" moments?
KH: Not many, maybe for two reasons. Michelle and I worked together for a zillion years. In many cases I know what Michelle would do. But the real question is what will Kaya do? Because everything that Michelle does is not what Kaya would do.
BT: What's Kaya done that Michelle probably would not have done?
KH::I think probably Dunbar. I think Michelle might have provided Friends of Bedford more opportunities to correct the situation at Dunbar. I don't know for sure.
BT: Was the District slow to address the Dunbar situation?
KH: I think the real question is around the partnership concept. You say to a group of people, 'Go, do your thing, I'm not going to interfere.' One the lessons of Dunbar is we have to figure out at what point we say, 'I know I told you were going to be autonomous and all that, but things have gone past the point of what's acceptable.' Because at the end of the day, it's still a DCPS school and we're still held accountable. So I think one of the things we have learned as a result of the Dunbar situation is how we enter into partnerships and how we structure partnerships where we can actually figure out when a red flag goes up, when do we allow a partner to work out a problem and for how long and when does DCPS intervene. I don't think we have a very clear answer yet but I think its forced the question and we're working on it.
BT: There is the view that philosophically there is no difference between you and Michelle Rhee, that you both believe in the singular importance of teachers as the determinant of success inside the school, and that poverty has been used as an excuse for mediocre education. Is that true?
KH: I think we're philosophically aligned, but we're two different people. Right? Because we have philosophical alignment doesn't mean we're going to do everything the same way. Poverty matters. However, I can't control poverty. And I have a budget that allows me to deal with kids from sometime in the morning to sometime in the evening. So within the realm of my control I can only do what I'm going do.
BT: You're drawing up a new community engagement plan. You said there has to be more of message that this is collaborative. It's not like you didn't do a lot of meetings, but they were sparsely attended. What are you going to bring to the table that's not there already?
KH: Even if it's sparsely attended it's still really important in this community and we have to be real about that and honor that. By the same token there are very different ways to engage people. Everybody texts. We talk about the digital divide. People in some of the lowest income neighborhoods I know have cell phones and they have PDAs that provide web access even if they don't have a desktop computer at home. I'm watching parents text their kids left, right and center. And so one question is how we make use of new technologies like texting, like Facebook, like Twitter, to not just push information out but to create a dialogue with our constituents, providing an opportunity for parents to give us information and not have to come to a meeting. One of the most reliable vehicles of feedback for me is Facebook. I'm very active on Facebook. The reason I joined after kicking and screaming about it for a long time is it's an incredibly efficient way to make sure to make sure my family and friends know what is going on in my life without having to pick up the phone everyday. I think the Facebook people have really thought about how you build community using technology. And I think we can learn from that. How do we create opportunities for parents to engage with us in very authentic way using technology. Most parents, and I'm learning this as a recently indoctrinated parent, get home from work and you do homework with your kids and try to do something cultural or whatever. It's 9:00 before I can stop and breathe for a minute. And I believe that many of our parents, especially many who are trying to make ends meet, working two jobs or in school, they can't come to a town hall meeting, but they can weigh in, send us a text or go on IdeaStorm. There are lots of technologies out there that allow us to really dialogue with people---not just share information but to get people's perspective and opinions on things--that we've only scratched the surface of, and I want to figure out how to do that.
BT: Can you take a couple of minutes to talk about your partner?
KH: My boyfriend? [laughs] Let's see, what do I want to tell you? His name is Robert. I would like to keep his last name private because he didn't sign up for all of this.
BT: How did you meet?
KH: I was getting my car fixed and I met him at the mechanic's shop. He is supportive and great and I'm trying not to say a whole lot because he's going to kill me. He is a very behind the scenes king of guy.
BT: But you live together.
KH: We live together.
BT: And you're parenting pretty much full time?
KH: We share responsibilities with the children's mother. But we have the children in the evenings. The high schooler actually spends the nights with us because we live close to his school. They're 14 and 5. I'm the back up, I'm the clean up player. Mom does her thing, dad does his thing and I'm there to provide support. Both go to DC public schools. I'm trying not to out them either.
BT: You learn things that make you a better educator?
KH: Oh yes, absolutely. You are watching children change day-by-day right in front of you. The 5-year old has had two vocabulary explosions that I've witnessed. We were a little worried when he was about 3 that he wasn't talking a lot. His contemporaries seemed to be ahead of him. And one day he just [snaps fingers] I don't know what happened. When you watch a mind evolve and grow in that way it totally informs this work on a day-to-day basis. I'm trying to figure out how we drop an iPad pilot in some early childhood classes because this kid is a beast on my iPad. He's learned how to do his letters and numbers instead of on these old penmanship charts.
BT: You said the other day when I asked you if wanted the job permanently that you did not know. Do you really not know?
KH: I think what is really difficult for people to understand is that people think when you are an educator you clearly aspire to be superintendent or the Sec of Education. That's not true for me. I actually understand that there are a number of roles you can play in any organization and the top dog is not always the most important one or the one that is best suited for you. So having never aspired to being a superintendent, the question is when I think about my life is this what I want do. And there are absolutely reasons why I would totally want this job and absolutely reasons why I would totally not want this job. The truth of the matter is I have to figure that out. At the same time besides me there's the question around what is the best thing for the District, what's the best thing for Mayor Gray. He didn't pick me. We all made an arrangement around what it would take to keep the school district stabilized through June 30.
BT: He didn't pick you?
KH: When it became clear that Michelle was leaving, Chairman Gray didn't have the opportunity to look out and say, 'Alright who should I pick as my chancellor? I think it should be Kaya Henderson. The question was how do we ensure that the school district remains on solid footing.
BT: But you were not the only route he could have gone for that.
KH: Oh no, not at all. But let's not fool ourselves. He didn't have the opportunity to examine the entire field. I think he's taken that into consideration and he will come to whatever decision he thinks is best.
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