District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson strode into the packed cafeteria at Luke C. Moore High School in Northeast on July 24, flashing an infectious smile that reflected her eagerness to enlighten the crowd about her five-year plan for the beleaguered system.
But what Henderson obviously didn't expect right off the bat, was to be besieged with a torrent of questions and criticisms surrounding the firing of Michael Johnson, the former principal at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast – and when he might be reinstated.
"I was very upset that Michael Johnson was fired, and this new man they hired has some very big shoes to fill," said Keisha Warner, whose daughter will be attending Phelps this fall. "I'm concerned about the change of leadership, and I want to know if the objectives are the same. I want to feel more comfortable with what's going on – and what are the long-term goals for Phelps," Warner said.
"They even went all the way to New York to pull this man out of retirement, so for him to be fired like that, with no explanation is unacceptable," said Warner. "As taxpayers, we pay the chancellor's salary and everybody who works for her, so we demand to know what happened because it's our right."
Johnson, whose leadership mirrored the no-nonsense principal in the acclaimed 1987 movie "Lean on Me," was given the boot in May. But much to the chagrin of parents like Warner and others, Henderson has been guarded in her comments, citing the matter as a personnel issue.
On the other hand, Henderson, 42, who remained poised and confident throughout the three-hour forum titled, "State of Schools: Ward 5," and which was largely attended by whites, also took a verbal beat-down for not meeting with parents in the first place. Her camp apparently got the message, because just days later, her office announced that Henderson had scheduled a meeting on August 1 at the state-of-the-art high school on 26thStreet with the Phelps community.
Meanwhile, during the forum that was attended by Phelps' new administrator Willie Jackson and principals from several other District public schools, Henderson who just over a year ago, succeeded her controversial predecessor Michelle Rhee, sought to assure the standing-room-only crowd that all would be well at Phelps. She said that while she was aware of how difficult it was for the community to embrace her decision, it was not Johnson's leadership alone that charted the school's new course of achievement, but that parents, teachers and the community also figured prominently in Phelps' academic makeover.
"I want to work with you and I don't have a personal issue at all with Mr. Johnson," Henderson told her attentive audience. "But there are confidential personnel issues that can't be discussed out loud ... We will work with the Phelps community to make future transitions easier."
Nevertheless, Henderson was repeatedly reminded that Johnson's ouster was not a done deal.
"This is a UVA moment," shouted Elysia Rucker, who referred to the immediate reinstatement of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan in June following a heated public outcry.
"There's a lot we need to do, but No. 1 is that we need Principal Johnson back at Phelps," said Rucker, who suggested that Johnson's departure might after all, be a "personal rather than personnel" matter.
"The reason I say that," Rucker told Henderson, "is because a member of your staff came up to me during graduation and she said, 'I work in the chancellor's office, and I know what Principal Johnson did not do for my grandson.' So I took that to mean that it was her vendetta to make sure that Principal Johnson got out of there."
Rucker, like a couple other speakers, also made reference to another issue that held Henderson to the hot seat. Currently, 64 percent of schools in Ward 5 have no librarian, and Rucker said efforts to further scale back or to completely eliminate them could be disastrous for students.
"It would be a shame for [children] in this city not to have access to 21st century learning, [as] librarians are the ones to facilitate that," said Rucker. "It's around that time when [inner-city] children reach third grade that it's being determined how many jail cells need to be built [and] our children need to be reading long before the second and third grade. If we don't have a level playing field where librarians are contributing to their education, something is terribly wrong in Washington, D.C."
Henderson, a Ward 5 resident admitted that over the past 40 years, the District has become one of the worst places in the country to be educated. But she said that she didn't want parents and students to feel a lack of confidence in officials or that they weren't getting all they deserved from the school system.
In saying so, she touched upon expectations outlined in her strategic plan, "A Capital Commitment," that is set for full implementation by 2017.
Henderson said the plan, which focuses on five goals – including continued improvement in reading and math scores and increased graduation rates – will not only strengthen Ward 5 schools, but all District schools.
Meanwhile, Henderson went onto acknowledge several instances of achievement that have occurred at Ward 5 schools since she's been at the helm.
They include a 14 percent drop in the truancy rate at Moore; that two students at Dunbar Senior High School recently won first-and second-place in a regional competition that involved their peers from Northern Virginia and Maryland; the planetarium at Thurgood Marshall Middle School has been reopened for the first time in 20 years; as part of their Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] curriculum, students at Spingarn Senior High School are learning to create video games; and that science students at the Langley Education Campus have been engaged in dissecting – tasks, that in the past, normally start at the high school level.
While Henderson offered little feedback on the library issue, overall she listened intently to the speakers' concerns.
She said she was sensitive to the need for librarians, like she was over the dozens of school closings that took place in 2008 – and for which Ward 5 took the most hits. Henderson also expressed concern that District schools were not utilizing resources as best they could, and that more of the District's public schools have yet to be exposed to better curriculums such as STEM.
"I think there is a unique opportunity here to not just build new schools and to build [and promote] new programs, but to engage the community [more] and to think differently about how we can do this work together," Henderson said. "This will be challenging and require that we have further collaborations, and that we continue [these forums]with the community."