Jaffe: With Henderson's Departure, Bowser Must Keep Up Momentum in D.C. Public Schools

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes an occasional column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Kaya Henderson has been a gift to D.C. public school students for her nearly six years at the helm of DCPS. Now that Henderson has announced her departure, it’s time for Mayor Muriel Bowser to show up and take responsibility for the schools. After all, she controls them.

It’s true, now more than ever, that as the public schools go, so goes the District. Will the city grow its middle class? Will young newcomers stick around to buy homes and raise families, or will they flee to the suburbs when their kids reach school age? "It's on everyone’s mind," a recently married journalist who bought in Trinidad told me. Will Washingtonians coming up in poverty graduate school ready to work and prosper in the new economy?

It all depends on the public schools. And the public charter schools.

Kaya Henderson was far from perfect. When it comes to leading an urban public school system -- where all the maladies of poverty, health, violence and family dysfunction descend -- no one is entirely successful. Sure, Henderson could have tried to retain more principals and teachers. She should have done more for athletics. Critics will play checkers with statistics and question whether student achievement actually improved.

By many measures, they did. The National Assessment of Education showed rising scores. More African-American boys graduated from high school. Henderson rammed through a program aimed at getting black boys through school. Here’s the best measure of her success: students started coming back to the public schools. Henderson inherited a system that was losing thousands of students a year; now it’s gaining them back. All the trends are heading north.

What you won’t see in data is that Henderson has aimed the system directly toward career and college education. She started seven, highly-functioning career academies and is adding three more this summer and fall. They train students in everything from running restaurants and managing hotels to engineering and writing code. Finally, the District’s education leader cemented ties to the city's business community so that hundreds of students have internships this summer at law firms and hotels, developers and banks, nonprofits and hospitals.

Keep in mind the District’s public schools started plummeting downhill in the 1960s, and leader after leader watched them slide. Marion Barry started his political career as school board president, and he ran for mayor in 1978 on his education record. But as mayor for four terms Barry ignored the schools. He pushed responsibility off on the elected school board, but it was a dereliction in his leadership.

Sharon Pratt Kelly ran as the education mayor then ignored the crumbling school buildings and dismal classrooms. Mayor Anthony Williams tried to take over the schools but lacked the political will and muscle. He settled for a hybrid elected and appointed school board that changed nothing.

As the politicians dawdled, generations of District kids failed to learn basic reading and math. Many who graduated were destined for failure.

We have to blow up the system to fix it, many businessmen would tell me.

Roofs leaked, toilets wouldn't flush, boilers failed and teachers were too old to teach. Those were the conditions at exalted Lafayette Elementary School, where my three daughters had to wear coats all day on winter days when the furnace failed.

Say what you will about Adrian Fenty, but he had the vision and the guts to stop the decline and take over the schools -- in his first act as mayor. He then convinced school reformer Michelle Rhee to become the first chancellor, knowing she would demand change, close failing schools and fire crappy teachers.

(Full disclosure: I covered Rhee and collaborated on her memoir.)

Fenty pushed through the billion dollars to begin renovating and rebuilding decrepit schools. He fixed athletic fields all over the city. Rhee battled and beat back a teacher's union that had protected horrible teachers. My kids had a few. The teacher corps needed Rhee's rough love, or nothing would have changed.

Before Rhee left her post, when Fenty lost his reelection bid, she made sure incoming Mayor Vince Gray would appoint her chief deputy, Kaya Henderson, to take her place. Henderson was the ideal leader to continue the reforms; she had been working with DCPS since 1997 as a consultant for The New Teacher Project, and she was committed to improving outcomes for poor kids. Slowly but surely, without fanfare, she accomplished plenty for the students and families.

Henderson also gets credit for making peace with the District's burgeoning and successful charter schools. Rhee wanted to control them; Henderson collaborated with them.

Looking forward, Mayor Bowser and the next chancellor must ratchet up the momentum. Education reform has dropped out of the public consciousness. It's off the home pages. It's not trendy. But it's more essential than ever.

Parents in Petworth want to know why Benjamin Banneker, their gem of an academic high school, is in worsening condition while the District's renovation of Duke Ellington School of the Arts has busted budgets and risen to an astounding $180 million. It's crucial that elementary schools like Bancroft in Mount Pleasant and Garrison near Logan Circle attract families moving into the neighborhoods. Ballou Senior High in Congress Heights looks great from the outside, but it’s still not providing a first rate education. It must.

Kaya Henderson isn't going anywhere. She’s put down roots in the District. "I have a mortgage," she told me. No surprise offers to run another urban school system. No lucrative opportunities to consult, at the moment.

Bowser would do well to keep her close -- the gift that keeps giving.

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