D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson Teaches Leadership Lessons

March 14, 2012 Kaya Henderson

The MBA Evening Program’s 2012 Leadership Residency concluded on Friday, March 9, with an opening session on “Courage in Action: Leading Change in DC Public Schools” by Kaya Henderson, chancellor of DC Public Schools (DCPS). (Watch the video.)

The four-day residency examined ways to make a difference, from social change to managing change in an organization. Henderson demonstrated how to make a difference in the lives of others.
“I have been shaped by the transformative experiences in my life,” Henderson said of her work and passion for education. 
The two-time Georgetown graduate (SFS ’92, EML ’07) shared her journey of leadership, beginning with her childhood in the projects of Mt. Vernon, N.Y. As the only child of a single mother who believed in the power of education, Henderson attended a public elementary school, a private all-girls Catholic middle school, and a public high school. During these same years, her mother, a teacher and a principal, used school breaks to show her daughter the world. 
As a result, Henderson went to Georgetown University – the only school she wanted to attend – with an idea that she would join the CIA or work for the Foreign Service. Instead, she realized her love for service and developed an interest in policy. 
“Little did I know that this ‘men and women in service’ would seep into my soul and reinforce those things I learned at home,” she said of Georgetown University’s mission.
When her friends pursued policy abroad, she saw the same issues at home and joined Teach for America as a way to gain more experience and make a difference.
“I taught four miles from where I grew up,” Henderson said. “But it might as well have been on the other side of the world.”
At the age of 24, she became a recruiter for Teach for America, then was named the national director of admissions and later the executive director of Teach for America – D.C.
She answered a call from Michelle Rhee to start The New Teacher Project, a consulting firm with a client list of large public school districts across this country. In 2007 – the same year she completed the Executive Master’s in Leadership Program at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business – Henderson was named deputy chancellor of DCPS, with Rhee serving as chancellor.
In this role, she launched a human capital agenda and designed a public school system unlike any other in the country, where teacher evaluation would be linked to student performance. Her goal then, and now as chancellor of DCPS, is to create the modern urban public school system and make a difference for the 47,000 children in 123 schools in the district.
“We can change the life chances that they are currently facing,” she concluded.