Henderson on Hot Seat during Ward 5 Forum

Dorothy Rowley | 8/1/2012, 11:42 a.m.

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.