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Kaya Henderson On Education And Her Tenure As D.C. Schools Chancellor


Now to a newsmaker conversation with one of the leading figures in American education. She doesn't lead the biggest school district in the country, nor the wealthiest, nor the poorest. But for much of the past decade, Kaya Henderson has been a key leader of the public schools in Washington, D.C., a district that's been at the crux of just about every major issue and controversy in education, from the rise of charter schools to performance-based standards for teachers to the introduction of Common Core. Now after nearly six years in the top job as chancellor, Kaya Henderson says it's time to take a break. She's stepping down as of October 1, so we thought this would be a good time to get her reflections on her tenure and education in general. And she was kind enough to stop by our studios in Washington, D.C. Kaya Henderson, thank you so much for joining us.

KAYA HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Is it congratulations or condolences?

HENDERSON: It's both. It is a bittersweet time for me. I'm really proud of the work that we've accomplished at DCPS over the last nearly 10 years. We've had tremendous financial success in this city. So I've seen consistent investment in the school district. Like, I've had the perfect storm superintendency. And I know I won't get that again.

MARTIN: Well, why is that? For those who haven't followed the situation in Washington, D.C., you followed someone who was also a national figure but was an extremely polarizing figure. That was Michelle Rhee, and you were her deputy. You've followed many of the same policies. You've closed schools when you felt that those resources could be better spent elsewhere. You have held to performance-based standards. So what's different?

HENDERSON: One, you've got to understand what happened before Michelle Rhee. And D.C. public schools was a spiraling school district. We were one of the lowest performing in the country. People were fleeing the school system and fleeing the city, frankly, because they didn't feel like we could provide a decent education, and we weren't. And so I think you see things like the rise of charter schools, the rise of vouchers, conversations around how to get kids a different educational experience since the district wasn't doing what it was doing. And I think that what happened in 2007 was a city at a point of desperation saying we need to do something very different. We need a nontraditional leader. We need a different accountability system instead of a school board. We'll have the folks report to the mayor. We need a different set of resources. Everybody wanted something different. My time as chancellor came at a time where we had broken everything apart and it was now time to rebuild. I think you can't fight your way to greatness. You have to bring people together.

MARTIN: During your tenure, some 3,000 more students have enrolled in the D.C. Public School system. The other benchmark that people are using to kind of evaluate your tenure is the fact that test scores have increased. In fact, there have been some of the biggest increases in the country. And yet, the achievement gap between African-American students, minority students in general, black and Latino students, and white students continues.

HENDERSON: Yeah. It will continue. We could teach our tails off, but as long as we live in the region with the greatest income inequality in the country, we are going to continue to see gaps. Schools play a significant role in closing gaps, but we cannot do it by ourselves. Our families need jobs. Our young people need educations. Our adults need education training support. This laying of the achievement gap only at the doorstep of the school is ridiculous. Schools are just where all of society's problems converge, right (laughter)?

MARTIN: We've talked about test scores, we've talked about achievement gap. What benchmark would you like us to look at...


MARTIN: ...When we're talking about your tenure.

HENDERSON: I actually think that the biggest indicator is parents, families choosing D.C. public schools. And I think, you know, if you had looked at the data trends, we were supposed to be a much smaller school district by now. We weren't supposed to be growing. We were supposed to be dead, frankly. The charter laws were designed to eclipse the traditional public school system. Nobody ever thought DCPS would rebound. More and more families are demanding things from D.C. public schools. Previously, they didn't even bother demanding anything because they didn't think that we could deliver. And now when I look out across the city, some of the most important residents of the city - you included - send their kids to D.C. public schools...

MARTIN: Oh, I don't know if I'd claim the first part of that sentence, but in the spirit of full disclosure, yes, my children do go to D.C. public schools, as is everybody in this - on this floor right now, by the way.

HENDERSON: Well, my staff sends their kids to D.C. public schools. And previously that was not the case with leadership in the school district. And so, you know, I think the biggest point of pride is that people have confidence again in D.C. public schools.

MARTIN: So once you leave this post at the end of next week - and you're going to take a break - what's going to keep you up at night?

HENDERSON: To be very candid, what's happening in our country right now, right? Like, as an African-American woman, as a partner in a household with two boys, a 20-year-old and a 10-year-old, I feel like we're not addressing some really key issues that are front of mind for our families. My families need economic security. My families need housing security. My families need safety in order to be able to engage in this educational work. And I feel like we're seduced by this thing where, you know, well, schools will fix it all. Schools cannot fix it all. We need all of these different pieces of society from health care to policing to work appropriately so that we can put our babies on the best track to have a great life. That's why I'm in this education game because when you do it well, it changes life outcomes for people. But if our babies can't get to the school house, if our parents coming back from college courses get shot in the street because their cars are broken down, like, something is radically broken that a schoolhouse can't fix.

MARTIN: That's the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, Kaya Henderson. She leaves her post after nearly six years on October 1. She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson, thanks so much for joining us. We hope you'll keep in touch and tell us what you do next.

HENDERSON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.