What I Learned from Watching Kaya Henderson Lead

kaya

After nearly 10 years working in the district, Kaya Henderson is stepping down from her post as the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

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As the chancellor, Kaya consistently made the case that it is vital that the district thrive and provide a high-quality neighborhood option for students across the city.

As an outsider looking in, I did not agree. In Education Next, I made the case that D.C. should transition to an all charter school system. And, in the Washington Post, I argued that maintaining neighborhood schools in their most exclusionary form would increase historical inequities.

But you can learn a lot from people you disagree with.

And Kaya taught me much about how a superintendent can effectively execute an ambitious agenda.

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If I had to sum up what I learned from Kaya, it would be this: communicate a clear agenda of apple pie and spinach, and make it clear that getting the apple pie is tied to eating the spinach.

Too often, reform superintendents lead with all spinach: teacher evaluations, school closures, budget cuts, accountability systems, etc.

They say: “the system needs to be fixed.”

Rarely do the put forth a crystal clear vision of what schooling should look like; rarely do they describe the rich educational opportunities that all children deserve.

They give families little to believe in.

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Kaya consistently put forth a compelling vision of what DCPS could be.

Moreover, even when she had to make incredibly difficult decisions – such as when she closed 10% of schools in the entire city – she tied these decisions to providing broader educational experiences to children.

As the Washington Post detailed:

Henderson’s proposed closures also triggered opposition, but she is widely seen to have handled community relations more deftly than her predecessor, sponsoring a series of public meetings throughout the city and inviting parents and activists to help refine the closure plan.

The savings will be plowed back into schools to improve programming, including into libraries and arts and foreign language offerings, Henderson said, adding that the public will get a detailed view when school-by-school budgets are released in the coming months.

About 140 staff positions will be lost, but given normal attrition through resignations and retirements, Henderson said, “we actually feel like the loss will be minimal.” She said she does not expect any teacher evaluated “effective” to be out of a job.

Most superintendents avoid closing schools, or if they do close schools they do so in a manner that alienates communities.

But Kaya rightfully connected these hard decisions to a better future, and most importantly, she followed through on expanding educational programming.

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The best superintendents are populists, not technocrats.

They put forth a compelling educational vision that inspires the public.

But populists are not all the same. Some put forth a beautiful vision that is grounded in pragmatism, while others put forth a beautiful vision that is pure fantasy.

Kaya, I think, was a pragmatic populist.

And she taught me that this is likely the most effective way in which to lead a school system.

I don’t think I could every lead a public system as effectively as she did; but if I ever find myself in this position, I will strive to live out the lessons that I learned from her.

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