Interview with Kaya Henderson

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students.

Kaya Henderson, the former chancellor of DC schools has a new project: Reconstruction, an online tutoring and small group educational experience centered on an, “unapologetically Black education.” She’s interviewed here by 50CAN President Derrell Bradford on what led her to create the program and how policymakers and advocates can support more innovative educational experiences like Reconstruction.


Derrell Bradford: Hi, I’m Derrell Bradford. I’m the president at 50CAN, and I would be understating if I said I was simply delighted to be able to talk to our guest today, a former DCPS chancellor, Kaya Henderson. How are you, Kaya?

Kaya Henderson: I’m doing great, Derrell. I’m so glad to be here.

I’m pumped. I’m trying to keep it down. So everybody at 50CAN knows who you are. We’re fans, obviously. But not all the people watching this may know, so why don’t you tell everybody a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, how you got into education, and ultimately, how you had your last job before we talk about your new thing?

Sure. My name is Kaya Henderson. I am celebrating my 29th year in education. I’m a cancer, in case you’re wondering. Started my career in education as a middle school Spanish teacher in the South Bronx through Teach For America. Worked at Teach For America in their national office and in their DC office. Went on to spend almost 10 years at the new teacher project, working with school districts all around the country before I landed at DC Public Schools, first as the deputy chancellor and then as chancellor. After doing that for about 10 years, I went on to do some consulting work but then ultimately do work in the international space with Teach For All because you always come home. And now I’m writing my own thing. And along the way, I did some crazy things and so I’m a busy girl.

Stories are about details. I mean, look, your experience is considerable, and you’ve accomplished a lot, and we thank you for it. I just really want to be kind of cool about that. But you were the chancellor of one of the most sort of interesting and studied urban districts in the country, again, that being the District of Columbia. What was one thing that you’ve learned while you were chancellor that you surprised you? And what was one thing that at the start of it, you were like, “Oh, yeah, this thing is true.” And at the end, you were kind of like, “Yeah, I don’t know if that was true so much anymore.”

So the thing that I learned– I think I knew it to some extent, but I didn’t really fully appreciate it until I got into my role at DC Public Schools, and I would dare say that it helped revolutionize how I led, was that the people closest to the solution– the people closest to the problem often have the best solutions. I knew that there were strategies in the community for turning DCPS around. I knew for sure that all of these consultants that folks had hired and all of these other people didn’t know the answers, and so at some point you got to take it to the people. And I believed that we would get good suggestions. I didn’t really realize that our community would literally lay out a playbook for not only what they wanted, but how they wanted us to get there. And so I think I had– not being a traditional educator, not coming through the system to the superintendency in a way a lot of other people did, I had a decent chunk of humility around what I didn’t know. And so I was able to defer to other folks to help us come up with strategies for how we were going to transform our schools, because what I would always say is, “These are not my schools; these are our schools, so you’re not going to dislike Chancellor Henderson’s plan. You could dislike all of our plans that we do it together. Well, we’re going to do this thing together. And I think I have been consistently surprised around how much that contributed to our success at DC Public Schools. So many of the great ideas that we came up with and executed on weren’t ideas that came from me or my team, but they came from the community. And I’ve been consistently, I think, confirmed because in every place where I’ve watched big educational transformation happen, it happened in deep, deep partnership with community. And so that was something that I didn’t fully appreciate until I got into that role. The thing that I thought I knew– and I was like, “Yeah, maybe not so much.” I mean, good golly, all day long, every day, something that I thought just thought was not it. I don’t know. I think part of good leadership, especially in an ambiguous environment like the school system, is not actually believing anything too deeply because you’re always going to have– you’re going to get different data. You’re going to have different experiences. And the trick is to be nimble enough to let go of whatever you thought was the thing and pick up on the next thing. So I think I developed some fluidity and some muscle around letting go of whatever I thought was the thing and getting on with the new thing.

That’s awesome. So wonderful insight. So I don’t know if you know, but for the last year and a half, schooling in America has been kind of crazy.


I don’t know. For some people, nothing happened, right? But–


Which is, tongue in cheek, the truth. But for a lot of people, a lot happened, right?


And so certainly, in DC and in New York where I am, you know it’s happened because we were seated out up front. What do you think is takeaways from that time, good, bad, or otherwise?

Yeah. I think I would call this last year– maybe failure’s too strong a word, but I think there was a failure of the American public education system. I think we were not set up to respond to kids’ needs. I mean, let me be very clear. There were failures of lots of American systems–

Most definitely.

–in this global pandemic. And this is no knock to the people who are doing the work every day. This is really about the system’s ability to respond to the needs of our young people in our families, and we failed utterly. In fact, we tossed away whole segments of kids where we were just like, “Sorry, high schoolers. Don’t know what to do with you. I hope it works out. Sorry, SPED kids, we can’t provide services. Sorry, families,” who need a place for their kids to go, like, “we just can’t or won’t or whatever.” And so I think there is a crisis in confidence in American education right now. I think people who have the time and the means are looking for other options and are developing ways to curate educational experiences for their own children. I’m worried that parents who don’t have the time and the resources to do that that their kids will be left behind. I think parents have had a front-row seat into what is and what is not happening in schools. And I think, broadly, most parents are not super thrilled. And so I think there is a moment for reinvention and creativity that we can seize or we can squander. I think that there’s been an interesting explosion of the provision of educational services. So it used to be the schools were the only people who could provide educational services, but in this vacuum, you see nonprofits and supplemental education providers and EdTech providers and folks across the ecosystem rising to meet the needs of students and families because the institutions could not. Oh, and by the way, why can’t that be the case all the time and not just in case of emergency? I think there’ve been some really creative things that have happened as a result of the pandemic. I think we are redefining what success looks like for young people, and it’s not just about reading and math. I think when you talk to parents, most parents right now are more concerned with their kid’s wellbeing and happiness than they are with their academics. And we have never had the permission, frankly, to attend to that as much as, I think, many educators would like to. And so I think there’s an opportunity to redefine success in some broader terms. I think a lot has happened, clearly, right? I got 25 more things. But I do think that there is an opportunity for us to rethink who provides education, how we provide education, and what education is actually provided is maybe my takeaway in a nutshell.

That– I mean, that’s a wonderful segue. I mean, I know you don’t know the questions, but it’s almost like you know the questions. So we– I mean, we recently released this framework. We call it Believe in Better, and it’s really the culminate of the prior three years worth of thinking about the politics of education, thinking about the successes and challenges and failures of the prior 15 years of policy-making, right, and all of that colliding with the pandemic’s disruptions and what our states did to respond to it. And a lot of it, to your point earlier, was a lot of bottom-up stuff. It was identifying people, trying their best to solve their own problems, and seeing whether or not policy could be built to enable or support or sort of supercharge that. And we had these five pillars, and two of them– and really three of them, but two of them very specifically brought us to wanting to talk to you about your current endeavor, one of which is just the education that’s probably right for you. We feel like families should be able to get the education that’s right for them. And that’s going to be different depending on what parental needs and desires and aspirations are. And to your point talking about what a richer definition of success is, that all lives in there.And the other one is that – good, bad, indifferent – the universe of sort of nascent digital offerings, right, like course choice times a bazillion, lives in our universe of open and connected learning. Because one of the things that always frustrated me was, “Why is it I can’t go to my school that might not be a good match for me physically, but I still enroll in it online, when conceivably I could have the best instructor for anything anywhere on the planet, at any time even?” Why wouldn’t we sort of move toward that? And it sounds like you’re trying to solve this problem. So can you tell us– can you tell us about, Reconstruction, your goals, what you got going on? It’s a hot website. I recommend people flow to it. And I would love

Oh, thank you.

–to hear what your hopes, dreams, and aspirations are with it.

Yeah. So Reconstruction is kind of the culmination of all of my frustrations in education over almost 30 years. And when I sort of started talking about these with a small group of friends including my co-founder, Roland Fryer, it resonated. And so I thought, “Let’s give this thing a shot.” So the goal of Reconstruction is to provide an unapologetically Black education to students and families, to teach our young people our own history, to be intentional of our own true history, our history of love and joy and resilience and success and intellectualism and all of these things that society doesn’t actually accrue to Black people but that are true for Black people. I want to ensure the intentional development of young people’s identity, right, because identity is key to building strong young people who can go out and change the world for themselves and their community. You got to know who you are, and that takes careful cultivation.And we watch other ethnic groups, people who send their kids to Hebrew school or to Korean school or whatever school. And I wondered what would that look like for Black kids. And we have a tradition of that, right, from citizenship schools to freedom schools to Marva Collins, Westside Preparatory in Chicago, right? We teach each other our history and our culture. But we thought, “What would that look like technology-enabled on a platform where no matter where kids are in the country, they have access to curricula that is both academic but also cultural?” Because many of us don’t live near our extended families anymore. And so you don’t know how to make Big Mama’s macaroni and cheese. That is a big problem, right? That is a problem. You don’t know how to play spades, so you go to college unprepared, right? We want to cover the gamut. We want to teach you math and reading and science and social studies, but we also want to teach you the things that connect us as a community. And so what we found is that resonates with students in a significant way. We’ve served about 3,000 students since we started in September and students who love the content that they’re exposed to. At Reconstruction, they say, “This is not what we’re learning in school, but this is what we should be learning in school. This is what we wish we were learning in school.”We do that in small groups of 6 to 8 kids, 6 to 10 kids, with a tutor, or we call them a Reconstruction who’s delivering this content. And our kids say that the Reconstructions are like their cool older brothers or their cool older sisters because lots of them are college students or recent college graduates or teachers, who frankly are free from teaching the [waiting?] to teach in school and are able to teach with all the love and joy that they want to because we’re supplemental. We’re not trying to be school. We’re not trying to replace school. Too many constraints in that thing. Been there. I’ve done that. I wanted to create a space that would feel very different for our young people, where they would feel loved and they feel a sense of belonging, where they would feel like people are rooting for them and preparing them for success. And so that’s what Reconstruction is. We do everything from teach Black Shakespeare to teach entrepreneurship to teach cooking for the soul, which is five soul food dishes, and the history of where those soul food dishes come from, and more.

This sounds like it might be good for my heart but bad for my waistline, so I just want to–

No, no, we do healthy– we do healthy versions of our foods as well. We’re trying to live out here.

Okay, okay. So this a good segue. I mean, you have a hot website. I like how you set it up. If I’m a shorty, if I’m a youngin, if I’m grown folk, and you’re OG like me because I’m old now, how do I get down? What do I do?You–How do I sign up? How do I participate?

A couple of different ways. You can go right on the website and pick a course. Shorties are elementary school students. Youngins our middle school students. Gen Zs are our high schools, and grown folks are everybody 21 and up. How about that for you and I? [laughter] And you can pick a class that you want to take. Most of our classes are five weeks, twice a week during the school year. In the summertime, they’re five days a week for the most part. And each class has 10 sessions and costs about 100 bucks, so it’s $10 per session for pretty amazing content. Or in many cases, we work with school districts or charter school networks, where schools will actually provide the funding for their kids and families to come on. We work with community-based organizations where those– whether they’re parent groups or Girl Scout groups or churches or whatever, they will offer reconstruction as part of their summer programming or as part of their school programming. There are lots of ways to get involved. And so if you don’t see a way you want to be involved on the website, there’s a Partner With Us Tab and you can say, “Hey, Kaia, we want to partner with you by doing X or Y or Z,” and we’ll make it happen.

Awesome. So just a practical question just to move a little bit more toward the policy stuff here. We talked a little bit about the way that you can supplement, and you’re obviously leveraging the tools of the internet to make this happen, even to build the partnerships, all this stuff. There’s a lot of heat coming up about the fact that there’s a segment of families and there’s a lot of families of color who are like, “We’re still good with the virtual option.” And some folks like the governor of New Jersey and the mayor of New York are basically saying like, “No, we’re taking that away.” I’m just curious what your thoughts on that are as not just a vehicle for more learning but just as a point of discussion in the politics of the moment.

We just don’t really understand why we would limit ways for kids to get education, right? We are super clear that one size doesn’t fit all. And in fact, there is a way that is working for some kids, so why would we close that channel? That just doesn’t make sense to me at all. And if I were a superintendent right now, I would be fully preparing to bring kids back five days a week, doing as much as we possibly could, and at the same time, making good provision for the kids and families who want to stay home. In fact, one of the school districts that we’re working with, we’re doing a unique partnership right now between a school district and a community-based organization, where they have actually acknowledged that a number of families of color don’t want to come back. And so they’re building a virtual hub, and they want a culturally responsive curriculum to be a significant feature of that. And so they’ve asked us to provide a lot of the courses for them. And it’s a grand experiment, right? This is within a traditional school system, where they’re building out a hub, a virtual hub, where kids who don’t want to go back actually have some solid options. And I think you’re going to see more of that kind of experimentation from enlightened leaders who recognize that you can’t just– everybody doesn’t want to come back, and people have a choice. We talk about school choice in lots of different ways. I think you’re going to see people exercising school choice in very unique ways over the coming years.

Yeah, this is the education that’s right for you. Any final thoughts?

Final thoughts. Here’s what I will say to our community of sort of ed reform policymakers. I think that over the last 20 years, we have over-relied on policy as a lever for change. We feel like if we can just get the laws changed that then the rest will happen. And I think we’ve had lots of good examples where we’ve been able to change the law. And then the execution has been really terrible and has, in fact, stopped us from being able to do the very thing that we were trying to do. I could bring up some examples, but I’m going to keep my mouth shut right now. That being said, I think we have to balance the role of policy and the role of strategy and execution, the role of community partnership. I mean, there’s a lot more to making this work, is what I learned at DCPS, than just having the right policies. And so I would challenge us to get out of our policy seats and to get down in the weeds and get down with the people, and that’s the way change happens. And so policy is necessary, but it is not sufficient. And I think that’s something that we have to shake ourselves loose from a little bit. And so yeah, I’d say policy is not going to fix what the pandemic brought. Policy is part of the solution, but we cannot legislate our way to educational success, so let’s find some new ways to do what we’re trying to do for all kids.

Those are wonderful closing thoughts, Kaia. It has been great to have you here today. Thank you so much for spending some time with us.

Thanks for having me.

Appreciate it.

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