Kaya Henderson's childhood in one of New York's most affluent areas, Westchester County, could not have been more different from that of the middle school students she taught at Lola Rodriguez No. 162 in the South Bronx.
"I taught about four miles from where I grew up, but it might as well have been on the other side of the globe," Henderson says. "It was amazing how four miles could be the chasm between such wealth and such poverty. I went to high-performing public schools. I got to go on field trips and took dance lessons and was in Girl Scouts. But most of my students had never been beyond the 10-block radius of where they grew up. The kids were as smart and as motivated as my colleagues and I were growing up--they just didn't have the same resources. They didn't have people setting high expectations for them."
That life lesson--that public schools must raise the expectations for all children, no matter their background--guides Henderson in her role as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, where most of the 47,000 students are black and Hispanic and hail from poor families.
Henderson, now 41, took charge of the high-profile school system as interim chancellor in October 2010 after the resignation of her friend and mentor, Michelle Rhee, a lightening rod for her unapologetic zeal to fire teachers who didn't boost student achievement. The D.C. Council confirmed Henderson as the official schools' chancellor in June 2011, after Mayor Vincent Gray appointed her.
Standing on Her Own
Henderson, who was Rhee's deputy chancellor, shares her former boss' educational philosophy--that teachers are key to reforming schools and must be held accountable. But Henderson's success and survival in the politically charged school district may hinge on her ability to differentiate herself from her predecessor, at least in personality. In December 2008, Rhee solidified her national image as a hard-charging reformer, posing for the cover of Time magazine holding a broom, a symbol for cleaning house in the teaching ranks.
If Rhee played the role of the bad cop, Henderson is more like the strict but respected teacher. Henderson still talks tough--refusing, for example, to consider removing student test scores from the teacher evaluation system that she helped Rhee launch in 2009. But Henderson, with her youthful smile and reticence to embrace the limelight, has earned a reputation for being more collegial and inclusive with teachers and business leaders.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington (D.C.) Teachers' Union, which had a contentious relationship with Rhee, says he has warmed up to Henderson, though he still opposes parts of the teacher evaluation system.
"Our very first conversation pertained to respect for rank-and-file teachers and personnel," Saunders recalls. "I explained to her that it was very important that she not show disregard or disrespect for our members. I believe in many regards she has been respectful."
Henderson, for her part, has not tried to distance herself from Rhee, who recruited her to the D.C. district in 2007. "I definitely see myself as continuing the work that we started five years go," Henderson says, vowing to continue focusing on teacher quality as she did with Rhee. "I don't think about dialing back. We created a culture here where we are driven by data and are incredibly innovative."
Staying Closer to Home
As a college student, Henderson never planned to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who was a teacher, a principal by age 30, and later a central office administrator in several New York school districts. Instead, Henderson was on track to become an international lawyer or a foreign aid worker. She even attended the prestigious Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
After graduating in …