Walking the Line with

Kaya Henderson

On October 1, 2016, Kaya Henderson stepped down from six years as chancellor of District of Columbia Public Schools. Shortly after her resignation, The Line Editor-in-Chief John E. Deasy sat down with Henderson to talk about the reforms she led that yielded significantly better outcomes.


By just about every account, your tenure at District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was a success. President Obama and former Secretary of Education John B. King have praised your work as an example of promising reform. What are the top three things that were critical to your record?

K. Henderson: There are three big ideas underlying our theory of change at DCPS. The first part is getting great people. I think that in many cases, school districts haven’t paid enough attention to creating an environment where you get and keep the best people. Everything from the teacher evaluation system, to the pay-for-performance system, to the professional development system, to the teacher recognition ceremonies we put in place were built to create an environment where the best people want to come and stay.

The next piece is engaging students, because school has to be a place where kids want to be, where they feel safe, where they feel happy, where they get to explore their passions and learn new things. Engaging families is also important to creating great educational experiences for young people. How you do things matters, and I think on the administrative side of school districts and schools, too often we don’t take the time to engage families and communities. But these are not my schools, these are our schools. So whatever big work we need to do, we need to do it with the community and seriously partner with them on solutions.

The third step was a rigorous academic curriculum. We made it a priority to develop a set of raised academic expectations for all of our young people. It’s all about giving kids what we refer to as rigor and joy. We wanted to make sure that in every single classroom, kids experience a rich, well-rounded curriculum.

“People all felt like they were a part of these five goals and I felt like we had a clear destination and clear metrics.”

Proposed spending ranges widely in the DCPS for the 2016-2017 school year, from $16,467 per student at Eliot-Hine Middle School on Capitol Hill to $8,312 per student at Wilson High School in Upper Northwest part of the district.

Share this article

more articles


Leave a Comment

Fundamentally, I think you first have to recognize that parents are part of the solution

Parents are a part of the solution. This is first a mindset which then becomes a series of meaningful actions.

“10 years from now, what do you want to see at DCPS? What should it look like?” We called this the Hopes and Dreams Campaign

The Hopes and Dreams campaign envisions the future- state which is critical to moving a system forward.

I agree and the theory of change defines all of the possible scenarios or pathways to get there.

There are three big ideas underlying our theory of change at DCPS.

I really appreciate how Kaya starts by making her assumptions and logic visible, and her emphasis on nurturing great people!

the community also has data. They have data that we don’t have. I wanted us to be open to them contributing data and helping to shape the proposal in a different way.

Recognizing and transparently engaging the community in the change process helps to jointly form new ways of thinking and shared aspirations for the future.