After Michelle Rhee: What Happened Next in D.C.’s Schools

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When Michelle Rhee resigned as chancellor in 2010 amid fierce opposition, she was initially replaced by her deputy, Kaya Henderson, a close ally and protégé.

The daughter of a public-school principal, Henderson got her own start in education working for Teach for America, as Rhee did. In 2000, she joined Rhee’s New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to recruiting teachers.

It was Rhee who brought Henderson on in 2007 as deputy chancellor of the D.C. public schools. “I told Kaya, ‘I can’t do this without you,’” Rhee told The Washington Post. “She’s everything you’d want in a leader. She has an ability to motivate people. She’s a critical thinker, and she’s an innovative thinker.”

But to take Rhee’s place as chancellor, Henderson would need the support of newly elected Mayor Vincent Gray, the city council chairman, who rode into office on a wave of anti-Rhee sentiment. The incumbent mayor, Adrian Fenty, had appointed Rhee and been a strong supporter of her work. The mayoral election had been seen in large part as a referendum on Rhee’s tenure, and when Fenty was defeated, Rhee resigned shortly afterward.

“It’s very important for Chairman Gray to feel that his pick is someone he has a good working relationship with,” Henderson said in a WAMU radio interview about a month into the interim post, in November 2010. “I don’t think you can figure that out in that short a time. Likewise, I have the same challenge.”

” You’ll See … Less of the Chancellor”

After a cursory search, Gray confirmed Henderson as the chancellor in June 2011. Since then, she’s deviated only mildly from Rhee’s vision. Like her predecessor, Henderson emphasizes teacher performance and has vowed to fire those who underperform. She remains friends with Rhee and has said she seeks her advice.

But Henderson, who has said she isn’t interested in press or politics, has taken a decidedly different approach to both than Rhee, who notoriously appeared on the cover of Time magazine posing with a broom, and who allowed a film crew to record her firing a principal.

“One of the things you’ll see that’s very different is less of the chancellor,” Henderson said in the early WAMU interview. Instead, Henderson said she would send out more members of her team to explain their projects and plans to the community.  (D.C. Public Schools [DCPS] declined to make Henderson available for an interview for this story.)

Henderson also has worked hard to get key players on board with her agenda. Under Rhee: “We did not do a good job of ensuring that everybody felt part of the reforms,” she told WAMU. “And so I hope that I will be able to do that more effectively than we’ve been able to do for the previous three-and-a-half years,” adding that it would be a “focus” of her tenure.

That began with an early overture to the Washington Teachers’ Union, the powerful and very vocal body that helped to bring down Rhee.

“We had our initial knockout punches with one another,” recalled Nathan Saunders, the union president, in an interview with FRONTLINE. He added: “There’s been a lot of work on her part, and a lot of work on our part in order to get us to a relationship where we can have a meaningful dialogue on education.”

Henderson agreed to allow teachers facing dismissal to appeal and take their case directly to the chancellor if they felt they were being unfairly evaluated. Henderson has also focused more on finding ways to improve teachers’ professional development, Saunders said.

The concessions have gone a long way toward restoring the confidence of the teachers’ union, said Saunders, who was elected in December 2010 after vowing to be tough on the chancellor.

“The tone has changed tremendously,” he said, since Henderson came in.

Not everyone feels that Henderson’s rhetoric matches her actions. “It’s essentially business as usual with a new face,” said Daniel Del Pielago, the education organizer of Empower DC, a 300-member nonprofit grassroots group that supports the public-school system. Del Pielago said that despite her willingness to listen, Henderson has done little to deviate from Rhee’s course.

The Big Test

Henderson has yet to weather her biggest challenge to date. She’s put forward a controversial proposal to close 20 public schools, reminiscent of the plan to shutter 23 schools in 2008 that led to Rhee’s downfall.

Henderson’s plan, known as “consolidation and reorganization,” recommends closing schools that have enrollment that is well below capacity. By closing struggling schools, which have a shortage of funding for programs, teachers and staff, the school system can consolidate and improve the quality of education district-wide. (You can read the full proposal here (pdf).)

Like Rhee, Henderson has held public forums, what DCPS called a “listening tour,” to gather ideas and concerns from parents, advocates and experts. But she has also met privately with teachers to address their concerns. Saunders said he’s been working to offer union input. “We’re on board, but we haven’t closed our eyes and gone home,” he said. “Everything we’re modifying we’re challenging, we’re putting our fingerprints on. Consolidation will be no different.”

But the plan has still met fierce opposition. Parents in the areas slated for closure have flocked to public meetings to defend their schools. Some have argued that they would be forced to try to get their children into charter schools — which don’t guarantee enrollment. Others have expressed frustration with a public system they feel doesn’t offer viable options for their kids.

Empower DC, the grassroots group, has called for a moratorium on school closures, arguing that they’re discriminatory because the targeted schools are in poor, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods.

And, they say, closures haven’t worked. Shuttering 23 schools in 2008 cost the city nearly $40 million, according to a D.C. Auditor’s report, as compared to the $9.7 million Rhee had originally planned to spend. Enrollment also dropped(pdf) as students fled to charter schools, costing DCPS about $5 million the following year, according to a memo by three think tanks.

“While consolidating schools is always going to be challenging, in the long run these changes will make DCPS a stronger school district with improved academic offerings,” said DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz in an emailed response to questions.

Salmanowitz said that DCPS had received positive feedback from the community about the proposal because of the opportunity to provide feedback — which DCPS collects on a central website — adding that some people had submitted alternative proposals “that we are considering strongly.”

The focus, Salmanowitz said, will be on spending money and using resources more effectively. The final proposal will be released the week of Jan. 14.

Thank you for creating with WordPress. Version 3.5 X DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, right, smiles during an announcement that she is resigning, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010, during a news conference in Washington. Rhee will be replaced by Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson, left. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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