Views on New Chancellor

D.C. Public Schools

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson will be leaving her job at the end of September and the administration of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to make sure that the public has input into the selection of her permanent successor.

On Aug. 30, 139 residents from throughout the District gathered into the atrium of the Roosevelt High School in Ward 4 to tell city leaders what they want in a new D.C. public schools leader. The deputy mayor for Education, Jennie Niles, said that public feedback and participation in the process is crucial.

Deputy Mayor of Education Jennie Niles led a recent chancellor search community forum. (Courtesy Photo)

“This is the first of three events that we are doing to find out what you, the residents, want in a new chancellor,” Niles said. “Mayor Bowser (D) is committed to education. Good schools are key to the health of our city.” Niles said the second forum will take place at Eastern High School on Sept. 7 and Savoy Elementary School on Sept. 14, both from 6:30-8 p.m.

Henderson first served as a top deputy under D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee and was appointed by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) in 2011 as the chancellor. While as chancellor, Henderson has been credited for continuing D.C. public school reform, raising standardized test scores, increasing enrollment and an improving the graduation rate.

Her critics point out that she had a polarizing relationship with the teachers union and would fire principals at will that she felt were underperforming despite the academic progress of the schools they led.

Niles told the forum participants that their input will be put into a report that will be given to Bowser. Simultaneously, the city has hired an executive search firm, Boyden, to look nationally and internationally for qualified candidates, Niles said.

A committee, called D.C. Rising, that consists of 17 education leaders and business and civics stakeholders will manage the process and make a recommendation to the mayor for chancellor.

Niles said that Bowser intends on making a selection in early to mid-October. Henderson will be replaced temporarily by a top D.C. school administrator, John Davis, as the interim chancellor, until the end of the school year.

“John Davis will serve as the interim chancellor until June 2017,” she said. Davis is considered to be a leading contender for chancellor and it is widely known that he is interested in the job.

There were 24 tables in the atrium with a range of 5-10 people per facilitator. Niles gave the participants three questions to ponder.

The first question was what would you want a new chancellor to focus on? The second was the selection factors in terms of personal and professional qualities, skills and experiences of the new chancellor? The final question was the participants’ opinion on the direction of the District’s public schools.

The participants had 15 minutes to discuss each question and the facilitators took notes to verify the responses.

“We need to have more African-American male teachers, we need to focus on closing the achievement gap and retain effective principals and let principals have more autonomy in the schools,” Stephen Jackson, the former principal at Dunbar High School, said speaking on behalf of his table.

Another table focused on lessening the education gap between the races in the school system.

“We need to reduce the achievement gap between the races, allow initiatives to take hold and disband them at will and improve school culture,” said LaFonda Willis, a member of the Ward 5 Education Council.

Outside of the meeting, members of the Washington Teachers’ Union, of whom Henderson has had plenty of battles with, distributed flyers to participants, questioning the two-month selection process of the chancellor and articulating five qualities that it wants to see in a new school district leader. Elizabeth Davis, who is president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, is also a member of the D.C. Rising committee that will present the qualifications and its recommendation to Bowser for the new chancellor.

Terry Goings is a Ward 4 resident and a civic activist in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood questioned whether the forums would actually contribute to the decision process.

“The process is typical of a citywide forum,” he told the AFRO. “The mayor’s team wants to get as many views as possible before she makes her decision. The question is will the information that we submit today get to the mayor?”

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