Kaya Henderson Up Close

Kaya Henderson | Beverlie Lord/Satsun Photography

When Kaya Henderson was chosen to be Interim Chancellor of the District of Columbia School System in the midst of a turbulent political sea change, things in her life began to change in a big way.

It’s not like she didn’t have a big job before: she had been Michelle Rhee’s right-hand person for years, first at The New Teacher Project, then as Deputy Director, running the Office of Human Capital at DCPS when Rhee became the District’s first chancellor.

“I was used to being kind of under the radar. You could talk to people without talking shop, or that ‘hey—you’re so and so, wow!’ kind of thing,” she said. “Before this happened, I could come home to Brentwood, stop at the nearby tavern because their kitchen stayed open until closing, talk to my friends, have a hamburger and relax.”

“Now, you can’t do it anymore,” she said. “People come up to you all of the time. You end up talking about the schools even among my friends.”

Henderson has become kind of famous in her own way. People write articles about her now. They want to know not only about the efficacy of the Impact Evaluation System for evaluating teachers, but about her dog and her boyfriend.

That’s not likely to get any better soon. Rumors have been swirling in the press this week that Mayor Vincent Gray was going to announce that he would make Henderson’s status as DCPS Chancellor permanent.

When I asked her if she actually wanted the job, which she’s probably been asked hundreds of times by now, she shot her head back and sighed. “People said I was, I don’t know, ambivalent about it,” she said. “I just don’t like that word, that’s all. This is a job you have to get used to. You have to decide to do it and do it right, that you make progress, that you make it better for the kids. The mayor and I get along. We meet once a week. I think he wants reform as much as anybody.

“So however it works out, I’ll be fine with it.”

“You know what happens when you get at the center of things like this job,” she said, not entirely happily. “People get to know your business. They want to know your business.”

That probably comes with the territory, which brings with it the media. She knows that, pretty well too.

Her first foray into the land of flashbulbs came when she was introduced to the public as interim chancellor in a giant hug-a-thon, featuring presumptive mayor Vincent Gray, then-acting Mayor Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee, who had just announced her resignation.

The appointment came at a tumultuous time. Gray had only a short time ago upset Fenty in a Democratic Primary election, a seismic political event which many saw as a referendum against school reform, Rhee and Fenty.

“That whole thing was a shock in some ways,” she said. “If you told me when we first got here that I would be here, where I am, interim chancellor and all that, I’d have said you got to be kidding. We all thought we would be in the midst of a second Fenty term, doing our jobs, continuing on with the work that had begun and so on. But it was Michelle who asked me to do this. She said: You’ve got to make sure this continues, and that’s why a lot of the team remained, assuring continuity.”

Now she’s here, and very much a public figure. Not that she’s exactly shy.

Henderson, 40, can command a room, even when its practically empty, as when she went with Gray on a series of town hall meet-and-greets that not only introduced Gray to the folks in the various wards of the city, but also Henderson.

She came in out of her office hands outstretched to sit with me at one of those big long conference tables. This is a woman who doesn’t leave you much room not to like her. She’s direct, with an open, animated face that breaks easily into a smile or laughter. She is also a serious person, something of a wonk whose comfort zone is probably three-hour banter about policy.

Nobody should make any mistakes: she is totally committed to school reform, which includes notions that you ought to be able to fire bad teachers and reward good ones, and that the Impact Evaluation System is an excellent and fair way of evaluation. Listen to her talk, and you get the notion that she’s spent a lot of time with Michelle Rhee: “I believe with all my heart that a great teacher can change a classroom, can change your life.” This is practically a mantra of reform—just the other day the governor of Indiana used almost the exact phrase talking about teacher’s unions.

She is also a patient worker and a relationship-builder; that much talked about revolutionary, dynamic contract signed by the Washington Teachers Union under George Parker was led by Henderson. “It’s about trust, it’s about relationships and building a process,” she said. “We all—our team, Parker’s team—worked on this long and hard under difficult conditions, but in the end we got there…Now we sort of have to start all over.”

Nathan Saunders, a strong critic of the Impact Evaluation System, defeated Parker in an election for the WTU’s presidency.

“Philosophically, I agree with Michelle,” Henderson said. “She has been and is my best friend. But that doesn’t mean I’m her, or that I work like she does, or have a similar personality, or always agree with her.”

Henderson exudes certain straightforward warmth, a no-nonsense straight talk, and an optimism that is obvious. She’s had some hurdles to deal with—a faction-driven problem over principals at Hardy School in Georgetown for one, facing budget cuts and possible school closings.

You’d think that Henderson would have been a natural fit for the education world, given that her mother Kathleen was a teacher and a principal. But in fact, she went to Georgetown University and the School Of Foreign Service. Because she was interested in policy, she ended up at Teach for America, teaching middle school in the South Bronx.

“Still, I grew up in the suburbs, Westchester. And my mom was a huge influence on me, that’s absolutely true,” she said. “We lost her in 2003 to colon cancer. She was 53. Just 53…We decided—she decided—to make the most of the time she had left. We spent a lot of time together, with her friends, teachers, principals and superintendents, and it was such a time. It was full of life. She wanted to spend her last hours with her friends and that was a blessing.”

Just with the open tone that she talks about her mother, you can tell this might have happened last year and that she thinks a lot about her. “Oh yes,” she said, “You have to wonder what she would have thought about this. It’s funny…I talk to her old pals, superintendents some of them, and I look where I am and I think about her, sure.”

And when the interim tag comes off, she’ll think about her again.

As of Wednesday, March 9, the day of The Georgetowner’s publication, Ms. Henderson was officially named Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public School system.

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