From DC Chancellor to Edtech Founder: Kaya Henderson on Her New Venture in Culturally-Relevant Education
When it comes to education experience, few can match the versatility and scope of Kaya Henderson. She has served as a teacher, worked with Teach For America and the New Teacher Project, and served as the Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools for six years.
Now, she’s embarked on a new path: edtech company founder. Specifically, she’s launched Reconstruction, a collection of online courses and curriculum focused on Black contributions to American and world history, targeted specifically at Black students. Founded in tandem with Harvard professor and economist Roland Fryer in May 2020, Reconstruction courses are now available for registration, and Henderson is spreading the word.
We caught up with Henderson last month to get the details, and hear her hopes for how this edtech venture can impact the greater education community at large.
Mary Jo: What is Reconstruction, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
Henderson: Reconstruction is one of my long time dreams come true. It is an online platform that focuses on providing a culturally-affirming identity development classes for African-American young people. But it is actually open to all young people—and adults as well. A young person’s identity development is really important; the world might tell you who you are, but when you know who you are, when you know your own history [and] cultural traditions, when you know your heroes and heroines ... you just have a different sense of yourself in the world. [I wanted] African-American kids to be proud of themselves and understand that many of the narratives that they hear about themselves in their community are actually wrong.
How does it work?
The [original] idea was, what would it look like if we had a Saturday program or an afterschool program at scale online? We don’t just want this to be accessible to kids in major urban environments—we want kids no matter where they are to be able to access this. What would a national Black curriculum look like?
That is the question that I was asking myself over and over again, and I shared this idea with Roland Fryer... [He’s] done a lot of work on tutoring, so we combined [ours ideas] and came up with the idea of doing an online academy where African-American and other kids can learn our history and our culture, taught by people who look like them.
It was very important to me that this is not school. I’m not trying to replace school. I don’t want to be “school.” In fact, one of my earliest decisions was to be supplemental. I don’t want to be constrained by the things that schools need to do. I want teachers and tutors and curriculum designers to be free to do the things that we think are good and right for kids.
Have COVID-19 and the continued racial equity movement at all affected the trajectory of Reconstruction’s development?
We have been working on this for more than a year now, and originally had plans to launch this project in January 2021. But when we looked at what was happening with distance learning over the spring, and when we looked at the lack of content that young people had access to, we knew that parents and families would be looking for additional content to share with their young people. And so we said, “Okay, what would it take if we use this summer to develop a bunch of courses? How quickly could we get these courses developed?” And by May, we had hired close to 30 curriculum writers...
We now have 25 courses available online [in addition to courses students can register for]. The George Floyd murder really kicked off a completely different conversation where people have started to talk about what is culturally relevant, especially for kids who protested ... and told their schools, “I don't see myself in the curriculum.” I think we [launched] at this particular moment [because] it is exactly right for the work that we're doing,
When you describe the role of the instructor on the website, you share that your instructors “understand the Black experience” and “how race permeates every aspect of American society.” For educators who will read this article, what traits might they take away from your thoughts on what constitutes “a strong instructor”? What are the strengths that your instructors bring to the table that you would love every educator to embody?
I think the first thing that we screen for in our instructors is a real belief that, like [American philosopher and activist] Cornel West says, “You can’t serve the people if you don’t love the people.” And so, we are looking for people who love and believe in these kids, and who communicate that in how they do their work.
One of the challenges that I think most teachers have is they don’t have the time to build the kinds of relationships that they would like to have with kids that would ultimately make them more effective. That is something we are prioritizing in who we’re looking for. We’re looking for energy ... If you’re going to [go] above and beyond, you’ll create a session that’s energizing, where you’re talking about interesting stuff.
You’ve alluded to the idea of a national Black curriculum. While talking with my sisters yesterday to prep for this interview, we realized we didn’t read a single Black author when we were in high school. While Reconstruction targets the informal K-12 education, do you think some of tactics will rub off on more formal spaces?
Even before we launched our product, I had a textbook publisher call and say, “Can we just buy your curriculum?” ... I think that the formal space is actually hungry for more culturally relevant content. And there just are not enough providers. And so, I think people are literally looking to put their hands on whatever they possibly can.
I think that this is just a question of: How fast can the formal field move in this direction? My hope is that we will have some things to learn and share. I am happy to be a thought partner with folks. I was on the phone with a network of schools just this afternoon, and they are trying to undertake the work of redoing their entire curriculum to make it more culturally relevant. And they said, “Can we call on you maybe quarterly just to learn what you’re learning?”
Reconstruction should reach as many kids as possible, and I’m always happy to partner with people to help them reach more kids with the things that we’re learning.
There’s always the question in my mind of, “How does one scale something like this? Is everything synchronous where it’s online with an instructor, or do you have more asynchronous opportunities where kids can kind of log in as they choose?” So, what is the ultimate future of Reconstruction?
That’s a good question. I’ll come back in six months!
I hope we’ll be able to serve lots and lots of young people across the country. We have talked about whether in a post-pandemic world, [when] we are back to doing things in person—whether or not brick-and-mortar spaces might be something that we want to build out. We’ve also talked with people like the National Urban League and Boys and Girls Clubs. I want to talk to Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, churches. My goal is to make the content available in as many spaces as [we can].
And what’s the future for Kaya Henderson?
This is my moonshot. It’s world-changing. Before I became CEO of Reconstruction, I spent the last two years working with communities all around the world to help them think about how to transform education. And I just kept feeling the tug … my own community needed my help. And so, this is my big bet. And I’m going to give it everything that I’ve got… I am going to do everything that I possibly can to ensure that this is a long-term institution in the Black community.
This builds on our traditions of educating ourselves. We call it Reconstruction because in the period right after the Civil War, in 12 short years, we founded 5,000 community schools. We founded 37 historically black colleges and universities. We started citizenship schools to teach formerly enslaved people how to read so that they could vote. In fact, our electoral game was so strong that 500,000 black people voted. (And, Ulysses S. Grant only won the Presidency by 300,000 votes during his election cycle back then!)
We have a tradition of building community and responsibility. We have a tradition of teaching our own history and our own culture, and I want to help continue that tradition.