School & District Management Opinion

Five Lessons From an Outgoing School Chancellor

By Kaya Henderson — September 27, 2016 5 min read
Five Lessons From an Outgoing School Chancellor: After nearly six years on the job, Kaya Henderson is stepping down as the chancellor for the public schools of the District of Columbia. Prior to her current role, Henderson served as Chancellor Michele Rhee’s deputy. Henderson is pictured here at her confirmation hearing before the City Council on June 16, 2011, following eight months as interim chancellor after Rhee’s departure.
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I have spent the last six years as the chancellor of the public schools of the District of Columbia and the last decade working for the school district. For 20 years, I have been focused on improving educational outcomes for students in the nation’s capital. As I conclude my time as a district leader, I see enormous promise in the future of education, and I am very optimistic about what we can do to help students in traditional school districts.

During my time at the school system, we showed it is possible to make dramatic improvements in only a few years. We improved student performance, increased enrollment, increased student satisfaction, expanded our graduation rate, and improved college access for all students. This success didn’t come easily, but the lessons we learned can be applied to any other school district. In fact, they must be, because we owe it to the more than 90 percent of students in this country who attend public schools to create great opportunities for a bright future.

While it’s impossible to capture in a short list all that we’ve done in Washington, five simple lessons were key to our success:

You need to be clear about your goals. One of the first things I did as chancellor was to publicly state the five goals by which we would measure our success. These goals were derived from input from thousands of community members, but they were clear, specific, and quantifiable. Our goals showed that we were going to improve outcomes for all students; that we were going to focus on our lowest-performing schools; that we would increase our graduation rates; that student satisfaction was important to us; and that having more parents choose our schools was crucial to our success. We haven’t yet met all of our goals, but they shaped our work, ensured the public understood our approach, and helped hold us accountable for our performance.

All students should have the same opportunities as their wealthier peers."

There is nothing more important than people. We all know that research says that the quality of a teacher matters more than anything else in a child’s classroom. That is why our district worked to recruit, reward, and retain the very best teachers. In fact, 90 percent of our very best teachers return to our public schools each year.
But just having great teachers isn’t enough. We need great school leaders and great district-level staff as well. Classroom work, school leadership, and district-level work all require similar skills—the ability to work collaboratively, a sense of urgency, and the ability to implement workable solutions to complex problems. You simply cannot be successful at this level of work unless your team is made up of the very best people.

Every student deserves the opportunity to have rich experiences across the curriculum. One of the things that I am most proud of is the fact that, with $2 million of private funding, we were able to send 400 students, most of whom had never left the country, on international trips. This is important to me because I know that all students should have the same opportunities as their wealthier peers. I also know that while it is tempting to focus on remediation and the notion of “fixing” our students, the real key to their success lies in helping our students blossom through broadening experiences. This is why we make sure that every 2nd grader learns about his or her neighborhood while learning to ride a bike, and it is why every high school chemistry student learns to build a cellphone battery. Yes, we must meet our students where they are with instruction, but we must also help students see how far they can go.

Families are the very best partners in education. Our teachers have done thousands of home visits with their students’ families, and I’ve held scores of meetings with parents everywhere from their PTA meetings and living rooms to our local Costco. Through these experiences, I can say that families are the very best partners in their children’s education. However, I’ve also learned that parents can be good partners only if you give them the tools they need to engage.

Our home visits give teachers a chance to learn about individual students’ needs and interests at the start of the school year so teachers and families can work together to help those children succeed. At our community meetings, we provide parents with key information but also let them know the issues that need their feedback. We use this feedback every year when we formulate our budget, and we focus on families when we have to make decisions about opening new schools, consolidating schools, or changing school boundaries. I have found that even the busiest families will gladly make time for you when you seek their input.

School district leaders need thoughtful, aligned political support. I have been fortunate to work under three different mayors, three different City Council chairmen, and two different City Council education committee chairmen—all of whom have taken a strong interest in education, and all of whom have worked to invest in our schools. As a district leader, I had to make hundreds of decisions, including closing underenrolled schools, and I am certain that some of our city’s political leaders wish that I had made different decisions from time to time.

While we may have had contentious hearings and difficult conversations, nearly all of our city’s elected leaders lent their support to our work. Simply put, this was absolutely fundamental to our success. We have all shared the goal of greatly improving educational opportunities for students and that—rather than quibbles over facilities, policies, or program—defined our relationship.

Ten years ago, the District of Columbia had a struggling school system. We still have a great deal of work to do from ensuring that every school provides students with an excellent education to supporting students who haven’t been successful in a traditional setting. But over the past decade, we have shown that with the right approach, our school district was able to become one of the fastest-improving school districts in the country, according to the 2013 and 2015 Trial Urban District Assessment.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2016 edition of Education Week as 5 Lessons From an Outgoing Chancellor


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