A word with Kaya Henderson: Chancellor speaks about DCPS’s state of education



Six student journalists from Wilson, Woodson, and Anacostia High Schools interviewed DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson on September 30, prior to Henderson’s annual State of the Schools address. The Beacon was allowed to ask two questions, printed below. In the three weeks that followed, Henderson has been unavailable for additional interviews.

Henderson’s address focused on DCPS improvements, primarily a six-point increase in the graduation rate. She said she is proud of the improvement, a result of “aggressive changes,” but acknowledged that DCPS’s graduation rate of 64% is still far below the national average of 81%: “You don’t flip a switch and a school district becomes great.”

Henderson linked the racial and economic achievement gap, a national and local issue, to a parenting gap: “Parents want to help their kids; they don’t know how because as a school district we failed them generations and generations ago.”

Issues with school boundaries, the achievement gap, and graduation statistics below the national average were central to Henderson’s address on the state of DCPS. But she stuck to her central theme that the school district has come a long way under her leadership and will only continue to improve in the future.

Here are The Beacon’s questions, with Henderson’s answers, edited for space considerations.

The Beacon: Why do you believe there is such a wide achievement gap, along economic and racial lines, at Wilson?

Kaya Henderson: [There is] a wide achievement gap across DCPS, across the country. I think it’s particularly acute in Washington, DC because we are one of the cities that has the greatest income inequality. There is lots of research and studies that show that wealth, and particularly the exposure that comes with wealth, has a significant impact in terms of educational attainment. So you would figure that in a place with such disparate wealth, you would have a disparate achievement gap. That being said, I actually think school is the great equalizer. This is why we have to move away from places where, if your school has a lot of wealthy people, the PTA can buy a lot of additional things. We are trying to ensure equity across the district, so we can ensure all our young people, no matter what side of town you live on or no matter how much wealth you have, a set of things that everyone wants for their young people.


The Beacon: A lot of DCPS high schools are underpopulated. How do you plan on dealing with that?

Kaya Henderson: This can go two ways. For years, literally, half of the city was zoned to go to Wilson and the other half of the city was zoned to go to all the other high schools. We just went through a boundary and feeder rezoning process, where we changed some of the boundaries, so moving forward there won’t be so many kids feeding into Wilson.

Number two is, I think for a long time Wilson was not overcrowded. And we were just so happy when we rebuilt Wilson that people wanted to come, we don’t want to turn people away. So we kept putting people in [Wilson], in nooks and crannies.

Part of the reason that I think so many people wanted to go to Wilson is that Wilson had a lot to offer. Wilson had AP courses, some schools didn’t have AP courses. So one of the things that I did was require that every school have AP courses. And now we are up to four or six, though most of schools now have 12-13. Wilson has a zillion electives, when in fact all kids need electives. You don’t come to school because you just love math or English or science or social studies, it’s the journalism class or the ceramics class or the dance team or the whatever.  So this year we put money in the budget to make sure that every school can offer 20 electives. The other part of alleviating the crowding at Wilson is making every other high school so appealing that people don’t feel like there is only one place to go for high school. •