Not So Far Away

DC’s chancellor answers some hard questions about helping students thrive in the present and preparing them for a future that’s closer than it seems.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero 

Kaya Henderson with Patterson studentStrongly influenced by her late mother Kathleen Henderson (an educator who became a school principal at the age of 30), Kaya Henderson (pictured here with one of her 45,000 students) was confirmed as Chancellor of DC Public Schools on June 21, 2011. Kaya’s mother had worked in Yonkers, New York City and Long Island Public Schools. A native of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., Kaya was born on July 1, 1970, and attended Mt. Vernon public schools, where she graduated from high school there with honors. Kaya received her bachelor’s

Some people think these goals are dramatic. When you look at where we’ve been and where we’re trying to go, they are. But I also believe they are attainable.

degree in international relations from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and her Master of Arts in leadership, also from Georgetown University. Her education career began as a middle school Spanish teacher in the South Bronx. After serving as a teacher, Kaya went on to work as a recruiter, national admissions director, and DC Executive Director for Teach for America. In 2000, she began her work with The New Teacher Project, where she became the Vice President for Strategic Partnerships.  Kaya came to DCPS as Deputy Chancellor in 2007. During her time as Deputy Chancellor, she oversaw the district’s human resources and human capital work.  In this position, she served as chief negotiator for a groundbreaking 2010 contract between DCPS and the Washington Teachers’ Union, and led the development of IMPACT, a new and innovative professional development and assessment system designed to ensure that an effective teacher is leading every classroom in DCPS. Her work in developing human capital at DCPS has served as a model for other school districts throughout the country. As Chancellor, Kaya is committed to holding all students to high expectations, providing them with access to high quality teachers and leaders, and creating the most rigorous and innovative instructional environments to ensure their success. She has shared the successful strategies developed at DCPS with other districts and countries in national and international conferences. In this EdTech Digest exclusive, Kaya responds to questions about teaching, a news comment, meeting technology standards, her thoughts on “program fatigue” – some advice from grandma, and her vision for the future.

Victor: How has your time as a teacher shaped the way you lead DC Public Schools, particularly regarding technology in the classroom?

Kaya: I taught middle school Spanish in the Bronx almost 20 years ago. It was an experience that I treasure and reflect upon often. I think about my students, who lived just miles away from New York City, but had never seen the Statue of Liberty or been to Ellis Island or experienced the culture and museums of one of the world’s most visited cities. As a teacher, I took it upon myself to help open their eyes to the world around them and the world not so far away that was full of possibility. I think of technology in 2013 in a similar way. Technology enables our students to thrive in the digital age and knowing how to navigate in this very technological world is a critical skill for college and career. But far too many of our students come from homes where technology is not accessible. I want to ensure our students can access, learn and engage with technology in school. I want school to be a place that is fun and opens their eyes to the world of possibilities for them. Technology helps level the playing field and brings the world to them.

Victor: In a recent interview with the Washington Post, you were quoted saying, “Haters are going to hate”, can you share one such Ed Tech initiative during your tenure that has silenced these ‘haters’?

Kaya: I knew when I said this it could make a few headlines, but what I meant was that we cannot allow our critics to get in the way of our success. We are open to new ideas about how to accelerate student achievement, but people who do not believe in urban education or the work we are doing should look a little closer at DCPS. We have made tremendous strides over the past few years and our students are improving and making impressive gains. We still have a long way to go, but we are on the right track. One edtech initiative that is supporting this effort is the implementation of math software that not only presents concepts in new and different ways, but meets students on their level.  The power of blended learning is that adaptive software truly personalizes a student’s learning pathway. We have seen larger gains by students using selected software, which also provides actionable data for the classroom teacher to target lessons in small group instruction. Every single one of our schools has access to this type of software.

Victor: Will you give us some insight in to what your administration has implemented to meet the National Technology Standards for Students (NETS-S)?

Kaya: DCPS follows the National Technology Standards for Students (NETS-S). The technology standards are divided into six broad categories, with Performance Indicators that provide specific outcomes to be measured. While our Ed Tech office has been focused on innovative blended learning models to support content areas, we have not lost sight of the importance of these standards. The key for successful implementation is to embed these into student assignments as students gain mastery of the core content standards.  For example, one way is integrating productivity tools such as Excel into data collection in Science, students using digital media and tools to collaborate with experts as they learn about other cultures, and library media specialists collaborating with ELA teachers on research and information fluency.

With the PARCC assessments approaching, we understand the importance of technology operations and concepts. We have re-introduced keyboarding and are developing a plan to ensure students demonstrate a strong understanding of how and when to use technologies. Paramount to all of this is the concept of digital citizenship. Our district has provided resources for schools, particularly through the school libraries, to help students understand the personal responsibility of using technology for learning, collaboration, and productivity and keep them safer online while doing so.

Victor: We know you have a vision for what the role of technology should play in the classroom, how it should be used to empower both students and educators, can you share some of that vision with us?

Kaya: We have already realized some of our vision for blended learning. Technology allows students to be creative, to collaborate with their peers and to produce products that have a real-world relevance to them.

Technology allows students to be creative, to collaborate with their peers and to produce products that have a real-world relevance to them.

We have prioritized blended learning in DCPS and significantly increased the resources to help more students access innovative technology and programs. When we say blended learning, what we really mean is integrating technology into the curriculum in a smart way. It’s not just putting students in front computers—its helping students learn better through a blend of technology-enhanced instruction and face-to-face teaching.

We believe technology has the ability to produce incredible outcomes —if it’s used strategically and carefully. It can never replace an excellent teacher, but it can help motivate students who may have had trouble being excited about school before. It also allows teachers to cater to different levels in one classroom – differentiation, the hardest part of teaching. It allows for learning to be individualized so kids can go as fast as they need to, or as slow as they need to, or a concept to be presented in a different way.  That is empowering students to take responsibility for their own learning.  The instant data that is available for the teacher is another set of information that can be used to inform small group instruction.

Victor: Where would you like to see DC Public Schools in 5 years? 10 years? And how do you see that aligning with K-12 Education in general?

Kaya: Last year, we created an ambitious five-year strategic plan, A Capital Commitment, to set some simple goals for where DCPS should be in the next five years. It was the first step in holding ourselves to a different level of expectation, and getting us on the road to the DCPS we dream of. We want to improve achievement rates, invest in struggling schools, increase graduation, ensure more students like their schools and make the schools so great that more and more families want to enroll their children.

Some people think these goals are dramatic. When you look at where we’ve been and where we’re trying to go, they are. But I honestly see these goals as just the beginning – the necessary first steps on the road to the ideal DCPS. But I also believe they are attainable. We’ve chosen a five-year horizon because we know we have a lot of work to do to get here, but we actually believe we can go way beyond this. If we are going to ask our children to aim for new heights, we should do the same. We’re reaching for the stars, and A Capital Commitment is our blast off.

Victor: Any formative experience, say from your time teaching in the South Bronx, or something your mother said, that you still carry with you today, that has helped to inform your current approach to education and technology?

Kaya: My grandma used to always say, “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” It was not something I thought of often or fully grasped when I was a child. But now, it’s a mantra for me and it resonates constantly in my job as chancellor. When you’re working to become the greatest urban school district in the country, you’re going to have to accept that some are going to work and some might not. But you can’t let failure scare you away from trying to innovate and make improvements. You have to have a tolerance for failure, an acknowledgement that failure is often fleeting and a plan for moving forward.

Victor: You’ve been in the DC school system for about 16 years, seen a lot, you’ve acknowledged that teachers have seen “program fatigue” – yet you’re introducing a New Curriculum and have pushed forward an air of exciting change, but have said that the difference in what you’re doing is building infrastructure and systems to support what teachers are doing, not the other way around. How else does technology mesh into that?

Kaya: When we first got to DCPS, we doubled down on teachers. All the research about education points to the fact that the teacher is the most important in school factor for student success. And six years later, we have the strongest teaching corps we’ve ever had. We recognized though that when we knew how to train, support, coach and invest in teachers, we also needed to improve what they were teaching. So the next step we took was to make a significant investment to ensure that what students learn is rigorous—in other words, that the content will challenge them to grow and will prepare them for the future. One way we’re doing this is by implementing the Common Core standards across the district.

With these standards in place, our educators and our students have a road map to guides our students to a successful future.  It is a set of standards that makes sure that our students are preparing for a bright future from an early age. By integrating technology into the classroom, we help teachers improve student learning with programs that support data-driven instruction, flexible grouping, and personalized learning through rich digital content.

What are your thoughts on education in general these days? Are you optimistic? If so, what makes you say yes?

Kaya: I am very optimistic about the future of education. Part of this job as chancellor allows me to be a part of conversations around the world about education, about the future for our young people and what we can do to give them the skills to grow, to thrive and to lead. In DC, we no longer accept an education system that was defined 100 years ago. We’re defining success in the 21st century and plowing ahead, creating an education system that recognizes both the challenges our students face and the realities of where they need to go. And every indication has shown us that what we are doing is working. I have the greatest job in the world – I wake up every morning excited about the change we’re bringing for our students. What else could you ask for?

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to:

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