DCPS Chancellor Henderson to Step Down

District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who championed, enacted and built on the school reforms pursued by her predecessor Michelle Rhee, will leave her post effective the end of September.

The June 29 joint announcement by Henderson and Mayor Muriel Bowser, who immediately said that she had not asked Henderson to resign, still came as something of a surprise to the education community, given that Henderson had indicated she would remain until 2017.

Apparently, for Henderson, it was time. She is leaving on what’s being considered a generally successful five-year tenure, albeit one that was not without its issues and problems.

In a letter to DCPS parents and community members, Henderson wrote: “On October 1, 2016, I will be leaving my role as Chancellor of DCPS. Simply put, I am ready to take on new challenges, and I have complete confidence that the team we have built at DCPS is prepared to drive our work forward under new leadership.

“I have had opportunities that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Just as it is for our students, the things that stand out for me most are not our remarkable statistical accomplishments or our rising test scores. The memories I hold dear are of the people I have met and the experiences that I have had during my time with DCPS. I will remember the amazing educators that I have seen in action over the past nine years, like those in the autism classroom I visited at Burroughs ES this year or the enthusiastic staff I saw entering the Ballou HS campus when it was first rebuilt.”

She praised “the amazing principals” she worked with. “While we may not have always agreed, I have always admired your dedication to your students. Most importantly, I will remember our students and the light that glows within each of them as they learn and grow. I have seen students visit foreign countries, learn to read, learn to ride a bike, and meet the president and first lady.”

“I am incredibly grateful to Kaya for her nine years of service to our students, our schools and our city,” said Bowser. “DCPS is a very different place today than it was when Kaya joined our school system in 2007. DCPS is the fastest-improving urban school district in the country. After decades of decline, DCPS has also seen consistent annual enrollment growth since Kaya became Chancellor. While we will miss Kaya, we can all be proud of her team and her tenure as the second longest-serving leader at DCPS.”

During Henderson’s tenure, there were marked improvements in the schools, with public school enrollment up by 5,000 students since 2010. Another 39,000 students are enrolled in city charter schools, accounting for nearly half of the students in the District. Under Henderson, there has been an upward trend in critical student test scores. She also led an early adoption by DCPS of the controversial Common Core State Standards and carried out a controversial teacher and principal evaluation system called IMPACT.

An achievement gap between white and black students, however, persisted, especially in the schools in the less prosperous wards east of the river, during a time when the District is experiencing renewed prosperity, big economic and population changes and change in general.

Henderson came to the D.C. school system as the top aide for Rhee, the educator and Teach For America leader appointed by then Mayor Adrian Fenty. Rhee became something of a touchstone and hot-button focus of controversy for broad and far-reaching reforms, including teacher firings in large numbers, the installation of new evaluation methods for teachers and clashes with the teachers’ union. Rhee was both cutting-edge in her approaches and sometimes abrasive. She left in the wake of Fenty’s reelection defeat.

Henderson continued Rhee’s approach in terms of philosophy and policy, but was a wholly different leader in terms of policy. She was inclusive, arms wide open, approachable and cooperative, which made for easier acceptance of some of the continued reforms. She was the kind of person who, as we noted when she took over, did not leave you a lot of room not to like her. If the much-talked-about achievement gap persists, the overall result for Henderson — and she has also clashed with the union — can be termed a success.

The mayor also announced that John Davis, current chief of schools, will be interim chancellor during a national search for Henderson’s replacement. Bowser said that a new chancellor would not be expected to take over until the following school year.

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