Chancellor Henderson: We're listening, tell us more

Chancellor Kaya Henderson reassured people via an op-ed that she is still pushing hard to make DC schools better. Unfortunately, her 535 words gave few details about her plans for school reform.

Photo by Melvin Gaal ( on Flickr.

The chancellor said, "People must think that if we are not angering the community, clashing with unions, creating discord in our schools and making headlines, we must not be making change." It's true that some residents who don't have children in the schools simply assume nothing is happening if education isn't in the headlines.

But to myself and many parents, this isn't the problem. The issue is that Chancellor Henderson's plans remain too opaque. Her current strategy of holding all the cards close to her chest and expecting parents to believe she's got a winning hand is causing unrest and distrust among the community.

Many families are still stinging from elements of Michelle Rhee's tenure as school chancellor, and were further disenfranchised when Chancellor Henderson continued along the Rhee path of continuing to close schools. Parents are not yet ready to support the chancellor's leadership sight unseen.

Henderson writes that "we spent tense and contentious years fixing the most immediate problems" after she joined DCPS in 2007. I'm left wondering what problems she is referring to, and what they did about it. Highlighting a success could go a long way.

She also writes that the district needs great teachers and staff, to support the teachers with "rigorous content," and motivated students and engaged families in order to "give students and families the education they deserve." Her three main bullet points give no real detail.

The chancellor briefly references specials (art, music, and PE), foreign language instruction, and librarians. In fact, many schools are losing funds for librarians in next year's budget. The op-ed contains no details on what, specifically, is changing about these programs.

This issue goes beyond this one op-ed. Maybe the Washington Post imposed a length limit. But families have not heard the answers they need in other forums either. Nor have city leaders. In his opening statement at a DC Council hearing on the recent cheating scandals, Councilmember David Grosso said,

It has been six years since the implementation of mayoral control over our schools and there is still not a citywide plan for education.

Six years into this reform process and we still have embarrassingly low proficiency numbers in reading and math.

Six years into this reform process, and what amazes me is that we still don't have a simple, unified public measure for parents to understand how an individual school is performing.

Six years into this reform process and it's hard for parents to plan for their child's education because our policies and the landscape of offerings change every year. ...

This may appear to be a harsh assessment, but I have to ask: Who is guiding our education reform? Why does it seem that there are no guiding principles—NO PLAN?

A lot will be changing in DCPS in the near future. There will be fewer schools next year. Boundaries will likely soon change. Budget and facilities will shift. Enrollment is rising in many parts of the city. If Chancellor Henderson wants engaged families, she will need to give us more than a wink and a nod.

Families want to understand where the district is going so they can make decisions about whether they will keep their children in DCPS. They also need to feel heard and valued. That is where Chancellor Henderson can really make change happen for DCPS students. We're listening.

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own. 


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A very fair point, but I'd venture that there is a counterpoint to consider.

I wonder if the Chancellor's three bullets in the article are intended to speak across what remains a deep divide to build common cause more than anything. It is hard, and sometimes counter-productive, to drill-down to the nitty-gritty details without buy-in for the vision statement. It can invite a scenario that results in significant collateral damage.

I just wish we knew how to set a shared vision that the whole city could believe in.

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on May 3, 2013 2:28 pm • linkreport

Her current strategy of holding all the cards close to her chest and expecting parents to believe she's got a winning hand is causing unrest and distrust among the community.

Well, that and the whole "closing under-enrolled schools to save money for the rest of the system" while "slashing budgets and positions at schools in the rest of the system" thing.

by oboe on May 3, 2013 3:07 pm • linkreport

Well, that and the whole "closing under-enrolled schools to save money for the rest of the system" while "slashing budgets and positions at schools in the rest of the system" thing.

I think they'd be opening themselves up to a lot of criticism if they didn't cut budgets at schools whose projected enrollment declined 10+% in a year.

by MLD on May 3, 2013 3:52 pm • linkreport

Sure, but there are schools losing positions that have not seen a decline in enrollment--thanks to the redefinition of how DCPS defines "small school".

The $818 million spending plan, an increase of less than 1 percent from this year’s budget, calls for some new investments, but it requires cuts to staff and programs at dozens of schools, including some where enrollment is holding steady or rising.

by oboe on May 3, 2013 4:49 pm • linkreport

I am so sick and tired of this being felt heard and valued. There are schools out there who are satisfied with it all. There are parent groups who are quite comfortable and satisfied with all that's presented. I am mad as hell and won't take it anymore, really needs to take a hike.

by Rambler too on May 3, 2013 4:51 pm • linkreport

Without a drill down that demonstrates action to implement the vision it is unwise to continue to trust. The I will close schools but won't provide details to support the proposed savings until some indefinite time in the future does not inspire confidence. The savings proposed from the previous closings have not materialized nor has there been a sufficient explanation.

by danmac on May 4, 2013 11:59 am • linkreport

I think oboe hits the nail on the head. Some of us, myself in particular, were supporters of the plan to close under-enrolled schools. It was a tough call, but to continue to support failed schools didn't make much sense. Double down on successful schools, expand them, and copy what works.

But then the budget came out and my children's school, which was thriving, enrolled to capacity, and with a wait list a mile long, loses several staff positions. All the while, the Chancellor and Mayor trumpet this budget. We get feel good statements, like Ms. Henderson's in the Post. Meanwhile my kids are saying goodbye to teachers who will be cut next year.

It doesn't even appear as if it's a funding issue, but rather a clumsy, top down decision to reallocate resources in a way that individual schools and parents didn't ask for. I don't question the Chancellor's honesty, but her description of what's happening doesn't match the reality our school is facing. I genuinely wonder if she knows that.

by Tim Krepp on May 5, 2013 5:01 pm • linkreport

At the same time that DCPS is pushing their Staff Appreciation Week feel-good PR, my kid's school is trying to figure out how they're going to manage next year after being cut 4 key positions. And this is a school that is academically successful, almost fully enrolled, and well exceeds the "small school" threshold. Can we get a straight answer from the Chancellor on how this fits into some larger vision for DCPS? No. No explanation other than "enrollment, enrollment, enrollment... it's not our fault, we just have to make the numbers the mayor gave us work." Well, it's not working. And until DCPS can articulate a compelling path forward and step up their game to compete with the rigor and diverse programmatic offerings of charters, parents are going to continue to vote with their feet, even those of us who love our neighborhood schools and would love to stay.

by Laura Marks on May 6, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

@Laura, that is interesting. Do you know if anyone has put together a comprehensive list of questions that parents with similar concerns would like to see answered?

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on May 6, 2013 3:15 pm • linkreport

She would be more than welcome at any of our PTA meetings to hear for herself in person, the same way CM Catania just did and CM Wells has in the past. She seems to go far out of her way to avoid hearing real parent feedback and worse, threatens principals if they fail to tamp down parent advocacy. Do I feel like the Chancellor is remotely interested in hearing about the litany of concerns that continually drive committed parents out of DCPS? Not so much.

by Laura Marks on May 6, 2013 5:14 pm • linkreport

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