Best Calmer of Troubled Waters

Kaya Henderson
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Mayor Vince Gray, we all know, is not off to a very smooth start. But it could be worse—much, much worse.

Think back to last year’s election, and how polarized the city was over D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the future of the District’s public education. Many of then-Mayor Adrian Fenty’s supporters couldn’t have cared less for the mayor himself, but were voting for him again because of their ardent support for Rhee. (Some Fenty signs were spray-painted over with the word “Rhee.”)

Gray probably gained just as many votes from residents who loathed Rhee with a passion. Polls showed a strong racial component to the Rhee factor: White voters generally liked her, black voters generally didn’t.

Now recall the period just after the election, in which Rhee used the word “devastating” when talking about Gray’s victory. For a couple of weeks it seemed there was a new story every day, asking whether Gray would keep Rhee, or if Rhee even wanted to stay. The low point came after the pair met privately, then addressed a waiting media. Rhee wouldn’t even stand near Gray, let alone give a boilerplate comment about “finding common ground” or “working together” or “blah blah blah.”

And now, think how refreshingly calm District school news has been lately.

For that tranquility, Gray—and the city—can thank new Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

In Henderson, the mayor has found a leader who hugs, listens, gives away Georgetown basketball tickets to good teachers, and will carry on the best parts of Rhee’s legacy while leaving the worst parts behind.

“We’ll continue to hold high standards and have high expectations to what this district can accomplish,” says Henderson, when asked how she’s different from her predecessor. But “we will work to ensure that everyone understands that they are a part of this reform. These are not my schools, these are our schools.”

Henderson has spent the better part of her career working in Rhee’s shadow, first at Rhee’s New Teacher project, then as her deputy at DCPS. But in the short months since she’s taken over as the schools boss, Henderson’s not been afraid to assert her authority and undo some of Rhee’s unpopular decisions regarding individual school management issues.

But when it comes to one of Rhee’s more prominent legacies, the teacher evaluation tool known as IMPACT, Henderson appears to have bent her boss a bit towards her will. The Washington Post first noted how Gray’s softened his tone on IMPACT; he’d been sharply critical of it in the past because of a perceived unfairness toward teachers in poorer areas.

“I’m on board with supporting the chancellor,” says Gray, when asked to clarify his views.

It probably helps that the Georgetown University grad and Ward 5 resident doesn’t seem as attracted to the bright lights of the national media as her predecessor was (and continues to be). Henderson probably won’t be on the cover of Time anytime soon, and definitely won’t be holding a broom if she is. Where Rhee was all sharp elbows and blunt talk, Henderson’s shown a graceful side that goes a long way in this town.

It’s a testament to how well-liked Henderson’s become in such a short time that the sham “selection process” Gray used to name her his acting chancellor only drew foul cries from the perennially unhappy Washington Teachers’ Union. The mayor appointed a selection committee to help him find a permanent chancellor. The only candidate they considered: Kaya Henderson.

It was a no-brainer.

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