Recently, Kaya Henderson announced that she would step down in October from her role as the Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools to pursue other interests. Henderson, a charismatic and competent leader who is in many circles lauded as the most popular person in D.C., leaves the District on an epic upswing. Recent TUDA results show that the District is one of the fastest improving urban districts in the country. And, unlike what many originally posited, it is not simply because the District continues to undergo gentrification from the white and affluent.
The press around her departure has been glowing. If you’ve met Chancellor Henderson, it’s easy to know why. The Georgetown alumna’s stalwart dedication to improving the District’s systems, fierce commitment to children, strong leadership, community partnerships, and million-watt smile scream leader. And her tenure of six years as an urban superintendent in a district that enjoyed a spotlight that was both bright and hot is positively pyramidal for all but the most milquetoast of District heads. Each of these things alone could make a convenient headline for a defender of the educational realms of men.
But what’s been noticeably absent from the narrative — perhaps because it is inconvenient — is Chancellor Henderson’s proud status as an alumna of Teach For America—that most “divisive” of organizations which has been instrumental in the District’s rapidly accelerating change over the past decade.
Chancellor Henderson’s career at TFA — first as a middle school Spanish teacher in the south Bronx, later as a recruiter and national director of admissions and lastly as the executive director of the D.C. region — is perhaps the best example of the organization’s commitment to having teachers lead. It’s also deeply affirmative of a worldview that presents many channels into the work of educating our children, all of which rest alongside the work that happens outside of schools to improve the lives of low-income students as well.
As much as TFA shaped Chancellor Henderson’s own development, it also paired her with another well-known alumna of TFA: Michelle Rhee. If the hardest part of making a bike go fast is actually getting it up to speed, Rhee’s hard pedaling, with Henderson as her deputy, made the accelerating state we now see possible. It’s often said that Henderson and Rhee were two sides of the same coin, but they have always been their own people, distinct and apart from each other. If there is one thing they have shared, however, it’s an edge meant to cut through the excuses of why the District’s children were failed consistently and cavalierly. And though Rhee moved on, Henderson’s strong hand, and edge, remained to make sure the change stuck. No president of the United States has sent a child to the District’s public schools since Jimmy Carter. It’s actually not impossible that one might today.
There are few urban districts where the impact of Teach For America can be felt so strongly or over such a long period of time. From the improvement in the District’s performance overall, to the implementation of the once controversial but now quotidian IMPACT system of teacher evaluation and companion merit pay, to the growth of the city’s excellent charter sector seen as one of the nation’s best, TFA has been central to the difficult righting of the ship of education in the nation’s capital. Five of Chancellor Henderson’s key deputies are TFA alumni, as are more than 70 of the district’s school leaders and administrators.
Chancellor Henderson is in many ways the best of us, an exemplar of what happens when talented people who are committed to making the world better are given a way to actually make it better. It’s likely she would have found another way to have an impact, but her route into the classroom and system leadership, through TFA and later to the District’s chancellorship, affirm precisely why we need as many ways to recruit and deploy special people in service of our children as possible. If there is anything unfortunate that can be found in her tenure it is that opposition to TFA, and other efforts at powerful change, ensure that her leadership remains an infrequent exception, instead of an ever-growing rule.
Corps Knowledge thanks Kaya for her efforts. As her watch ends, we hope that her successor is as able and fearless as she has been.
This post was written by Derrell Bradford, NYCAN executive director. He writes from New York City.