By The Company It Keeps: Kaya Henderson

For this week’s BTCIK, I wanted to celebrate the close of another school year by shining light on a true school leader—someone who’s taught, supported teachers, supported schools, and run schools.

So we’re lucky enough to have as a guest Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Like so many involved in this work, she is a passionate advocate for the interests of kids in need. But she’s been able to turn that commitment into a number of groundbreaking accomplishments—growing TFA, launching TNTP, crafting and implementing IMPACT, and more.

There’s no doubt that were she to decide to hang up her ed-reform cleats now and apply her talents elsewhere—God forbid!—she’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

But there are quite a few of those in our business. What sets Kaya apart, at least in my book, are rare personal qualities that remain unseen unless you have the chance to spend some time in her company.

She’s a sophisticated thinker; you don’t achieve the professional successes she has through gumption alone. She’s courageous; though everyone knows her for her approachable style, warm disposition, and infectious smile, Kaya’s accomplishments are partly attributable to her titanium backbone.

Most importantly, though—and I wish I had a better word for it—Kaya is real. She has a remarkable, quiet confidence that enables her to be, well…, her at all times. What you see is what you get, and that is kind, decent, honest, and open.

You can see the ripples through the loyalty of her team. I know for a fact that other organizations routinely try to poach Kaya’s top brass. But they won’t budge; such is their devotion.

And I know from first-hand experience how magnanimous Kaya can be. Just imagine: I’ve written a book contending that the organization she leads will never be high performing. I talk about the failure of the urban district every chance I get! I’ve also publicly opposed a proposal she vigorously supports—giving DCPS the power to serve as a charter school authorizer. She has every reason to see me as a nemesis. But, instead, she treats me like a valued friend. In a professional world of big egos, turf battles, and petty grudges, Kaya is able to stay above it all.

She is exemplary company for education reform to keep.

You started as a Teach for America corps member, worked for TFA, and helped found TNTP, so human-capital issues must be very important to you. Are your roles in creating IMPACT, the landmark DCPS educator-evaluation system, and crafting the district’s groundbreaking union contract your proudest accomplishments? Or would you prefer your DCPS legacy to be something else—maybe Common Core or family engagement?

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to figure out ways to get and keep great educators, so I’m very proud of the human capital accomplishments we’ve achieved here at DCPS. Just today, I got an email from a highly effective teacher who contemplated leaving after his 2nd year, but because of the feedback and support he got from IMPACT, and the compensation and recognition he has received from A Standing Ovation, and LIFT, our educator career ladder, he is finishing his 5th year in DCPS and wouldn’t dream of teaching anywhere else. That makes me very proud.

That being said, if I do my job well, my hope is that I can leave DCPS as a district where students are achieving at high levels no matter their backgrounds, families are choosing DCPS schools because of the world-class education we provide, and parents and community members feel like they’ve contributed to DCPS’ amazing successes. That’s the legacy that I’d love to leave.

You’ve been with DCPS for six years now, first as deputy chancellor to Michelle Rhee and now as chancellor. If you could go back in time and start your tenure over again from day one, what would you do differently? What lessons have you learned during your time at DCPS that have been most meaningful to you?

If I could start all over again, I’d rethink our approach to communications and engagement. We haven’t done a great job of consistently explaining what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, successes, challenges, and how our partners – families, community organizations, politicians, non-profit partners, the faith-based community, etc. – can help to advance the work. We’ve been too busy doing the work to communicate and engage in a way that makes it sustainable over the long-term. This is an issue that I’m bound and determined to work on over the coming year. I know that if stakeholders—educators, families, community members, etc.—don’t feel ownership in moving DCPS to success, any wins will be short-lived. I want to create lasting, successful change, and I want to do it WITH our stakeholders.

You and I have a spirited debated going about my view that the urban district is broken, can’t be fixed, and must be replaced. Are there ever moments in your job when you think to yourself, “Dang, Andy might be right!”? Any particular moments when you smile and say to yourself, “No way, Andy’s all wrong!”?

I definitely have moments where each of those things crosses my mind. However, I’m less convinced than you are about the structural organization or governance of schools as the answer to educational improvement. There are great district schools, charters, and private schools, just like there are terrible district schools, charters, and private schools. For all of the dismantling of traditional central offices that many in the charter sector said were key to their ability to succeed, many of the highest-performing charter networks are actually recreating central office functions and roles.

The governance model is one of many factors that impacts outcomes, but it’s not the only one. I think great educational outcomes happen when you attract and retain great people, give them the resources and capacity they need to do their best work, and place them within environments and structures that allow them to soar. Many seem to be successful in doing this in one school building, or under a controlled set of conditions, or across a limited number of schools. However, the real challenge is producing a consistent level of quality educational experiences and outcomes across a system, at scale.

You have a tremendously demanding job, but you also have a wonderful family at home. How do you sustain yourself and strike a balance between work and life? Do you have a support group you rely on? Have you had strong female role models to show the way, or maybe you’ve found books/articles that help (Sandberg’s Lean In, Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”)?

I’ve read all of the “Mommy Wars” books and articles, and I’ve come to believe that nobody can have it all. Each of us makes sacrifices for the things that are important to us, and we find ways to make our lives work around our priorities. I have an amazing partner and great kids who understand that making schools excellent for all children is something that I’m passionate about. So they are willing to see me a little less and pick up some of the work at home, so I can do this job. I generally don’t work on weekends because that’s family time. It’s hard for people to accept, but it’s where I draw my line. I also know that time with myself, and time with friends and family is really important to me, so I make time in my schedule to do those things that sustain me.

You have a rare combination of skills and experience. You’ve got a big brain and giant heart. You’ve held a high-level government job with enormous public scrutiny. You genuinely like people and people love you. Would you ever consider running for political office?

Wow! What great compliments. Thanks, Smarick, but I don’t have any interest in running for political office. As a person who is determined to live my life on my own terms, politics just doesn’t seem to afford the opportunity to do that. The public scrutiny is also pretty off-putting, especially when you have a family.

I know you’re a big fan of President Obama. What most impresses or inspires you about him? Of the many other famous people you’ve met as chancellor, have any stood out as especially gifted in some way?

When I was little, my grandmother used to always tell me that I could be President of the United States, and I actually believed her. The longer I lived, the more I doubted that we would ever elect an African-American to the presidency. His election (and subsequent re-election) has restored my sense of hope and possibility about our country. I’m so proud of us and of him! The first time I met President Obama, I was so filled with pride that I could hardly speak. I’m inspired by his living and leading by his values.

One of the best parts of my job is meeting lots of people who I’ve read about or admired from afar. I could go on for days about famous people I’ve met and the various impressions they’ve left on me.

You’ve received two degrees from Georgetown University. Did you have any formative experiences related to the school’s Catholic (Jesuit) tradition? For example, did you come across any especially influential religious ideas or religious people while there? Any thoughts about the Catholic Church’s selection of its first Jesuit pope (Francis)?

I’ve actually received three degrees from Georgetown. I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters last spring. It was one of the highlights of my career!

Georgetown’s goal is to prepare “men and women in service to others.” That ethic of service was instilled in me/required by my parents, but developed more fully during my time at Georgetown. I joined service organizations at Georgetown because I saw injustice and inequity in the world. The diverse, socially active, Georgetown community helped me create my own path to addressing some of those issues.

Why is Anguilla so special to you? Is it the beaches and weather, or is there more to it than that?

Anguilla is far, far away from my daily life, but it is home at the same time. My family is from Anguilla, and I spent every summer during my childhood on the island. For me, it’s a place of total relaxation and beauty, but also a place of deep personal connection. It feels like my own very special corner of the world. I try to get there at least twice a year, though this job sometimes foils my plans!

If you could magically construct the concert of your dreams—made up of any entertainers, living or dead—who would you choose to be on the bill, who would you take with you, and where would it be held?

I like too many different kinds of music to knit my favorite performers into one concert, so here’s what I’d do. I’d have a huge dance party on a beach somewhere (not Anguilla because I don’t want folks invading my personal slice of heaven). My personal DJ (yes, I do have my own personal DJ) would spin all the kinds of music I love – old school hip-hop, old and new R&B, soca, house, Motown, etc. I’d invite all of my friends and family members, and we’d eat, drink, and dance on the beach all day long. Oh, and there’d probably be some karaoke involved!

OK, if you had to choose just one, which would it be: Julianna Margulies in “The Good Wife,” Kerry Washington in “Scandal,” or Idris Elba in “Luther”?

Love Kerry, especially for the work she has done to support the arts as a strategy to turn around one of our most challenging schools in DC, but the answer is very simple: Idris, Idris, and Idris!!

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog

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