D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who built a reputation for restructuring a troubled school district through rapid improvements, announced this week that she will step down from her position in the fall.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, says she did not ask Henderson to resign. Upon hearing the news, Mayor Bowser immediately tapped John Davis, the school system’s chief of schools, to serve as interim chancellor starting on October 1. A national search for a permanent chancellor will begin later this year, but Bowser’s replacement, as reported by NBC Washington, will not start until after the 2016-2017 school year.
Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle Rhee, drew national attention and scrutiny for her combative approach to improving the city’s schools. The controversial measures undertaken by Rhee and the breakneck pace of reform set by Henderson have established the D.C. school system as a national bellwether for the direction of urban school districts. Mayor Bowser was adamant that the pace of the city’s school reform efforts would not slow under the next chancellor.
“While we have made progress, no one should think that we are stopping,” Mayor Bowser said. “We want to send a strong signal that we’re putting a foot even further down on the gas when it comes to public school reform.”
According to reporters from The Washington Post, Henderson had long said that she planned to stay in her position until at least 2017. But she said in an interview that leaving in September – a “slow time” for the school system after the new term begins – feels right. She served as Chancellor for more than five years, much longer than the typical three-year tenure of school superintendents in other big cities.
Unsurprisingly, Henderson said that steering the 50,000 student system has been arduous; she intends to spend time with her family for at least half a year before considering other options in the education sector.“This is dog years on your life,” Henderson said of her job. “Leadership is about knowing when to pass the baton. I know that there are other people that can pick it up and run with it.”
Under Henderson’s stewardship, test scores have improved, schools have increased their academic and extracurricular offerings, and the DC district, having earned an ignoble reputation as one of the nation’s most dysfunctional urban systems, has been hailed as an example of reform and promise. According to Lauren Camera of US News, graduation rates have gone up for the fourth year in a row, from 58% in 2014 to 64% in 2015. President Obama has spotlighted Henderson as one of the most capable school reformers and administrators in the country.
“What she’s done here is not only just improve the academic outcomes, she’s managed to stabilize the system,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large school districts. “She’s given the city a sense of optimism and hope that its public school system can be what they want it to be.”