Kaya Henderson Walked the Walk on Building a Better Narrative in Black Education

For the past five years D.C. parents and students have benefited from having a leader that models what a new report says is a “better narrative” for public education.

The UNCF and the National Urban League recently released a joint report entitled, “Building Better Narratives in Black Education.” (The report was published by the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute.)

When we talk about building a better narrative around the education of America’s black children, we are wise to look to Kaya Henderson and the legacy she leaves behind in the Washington DC Public Schools.

And if you’re wondering if the fact that Henderson is an African American leader is part of the reason, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

The bottom line is that innovation and reform efforts that do not meaningfully engage the community are less relevant, less legitimate and less powerful. Therefore, having authentic, culturally resonant representation in education is paramount if we are going to change the narrative and close the achievement and opportunity gaps.

The report goes on to highlight the DCPS under Kaya’s leadership in the report.

Large, urban school districts often face insurmountable challenges in achieving success, especially among disadvantaged students. Yet, Chancellor Kaya Henderson of Washington, DC, Public Schools (DCPS) addressed these challenges head-on with new strategies and methods aimed at lifting student achievement. First, DCPS is working to raise the level of rigor in schools by an Advanced Placement (AP) expansion plan aimed at increasing AP offerings across all wards in the district, since a disproportionate number of schools in lower-income neighborhoods did not have many AP courses. All high schools must now offer at least six Advanced Placement courses. Second, Henderson announced a $20 million “Empowering Males of Color” initiative to help increase academic success of boys and men of color. The initiative will focus on (1) engaging the community through mentorships, partnerships and career training; (2) research-based strategies with a concentration on equity; and (3) innovation through creation of a high school for young men of color and investments in early education. Moreover, the district launched career academies in seven high schools, where students had an opportunity to receive mentorship, participate in coursework and attend site visits to learn more about engineering, information technology and hospitality. In addition, the district has made a distinct effort to increase teacher salaries and reward excellence in order to both recruit and retain teachers. The district has seen both gains and stagnation in achievement for students; however, the new initiatives and reforms offer promising steps toward academic excellence for Black students.

Under Kaya Henderson’s tenure, the tide turned from families fleeing DCPS to families choosing to come back. That may be the most powerful indicator and has already played a huge role in the shifting of the narrative in D.C. There was a time when parents were fleeing the city’s schools in droves. But Henderson and her team of educators have created a system in which parents are willing to place their confidence.  There is no greater metric than that.

I actually think that the biggest indicator is parents, families choosing D.C. public schools. And I think, you know, if you had looked at the data trends, we were supposed to be a much smaller school district by now. We weren't supposed to be growing. We were supposed to be dead, frankly. The charter laws were designed to eclipse the traditional public school system. Nobody ever thought DCPS would rebound. More and more families are demanding things from D.C. public schools. Previously, they didn't even bother demanding anything because they didn't think that we could deliver. And now when I look out across the city, some of the most important residents of the city - you included - send their kids to D.C. public schools… (NPR interview, 9/27/16)

Much work remains in DC, as it does in all of America’s cities. But the story in the DC Public Schools is powerful and contains lessons for all urban systems working to change the narrative around black education.