D209 Superintendent James Henderson's previous school district is in hot water over a recent financial audit. | File photo

Dr. James Henderson, the 56-year-old incoming superintendent of Proviso Township High Schools District 209, was born and raised in Holmes County, Mississippi — the “poorest county in the poorest state in America,” he said in a July 27 phone interview.  

The 15th of his parents’ 16 children (one died at birth), Henderson made a vow to his younger self never to return, because of incidents like the one that happened in 1986.

“I graduated from Jackson State University and became a news reporter at a CBS station in Iowa,” he recalled. “I went home to visit my parents and I had a toothache that was really painful, so I went to the dentist to have them extract it. I rushed in pointing at my tooth, asking them if they could pull it out.

“A white lady says, ‘Can you come over here?’ I went to the other side. Then I saw a white lady come into the same door I did and [the receptionist] waited on her. I’m looking and I back up, look to the side, and there’s a sign that said, ‘Colored.’ I walked around to the first door and it said, ‘White.’ I don’t know what happened to my toothache, but I rushed back home.”

Henderson said he called a friend who was a news reporter in Jackson and tipped her to the story. His father overheard his pitch.

“My dad looks at me,” Henderson recalled. “He said, ‘Boy don’t you come here starting no s—. I got to live here.’ I was furious with my dad and I left Mississippi and I never went back [except for] his funeral. By the time I got two hours away from Mississippi, I realized that it wasn’t his fault. I was mad at Mississippi and didn’t return for 33 years unless for a funeral of one of my siblings.”

In 2018, however, Jackson was faced with two job offers — one from a school district in Jackson and the other from the Holmes County Consolidated School District, where he attended. He took the latter opportunity, vowing this time to make his hometown schools better. What he found may shock even the most jaded observer of educational dysfunction in American schools.

“Holmes County was an ‘F’ district,” Henderson said. “This past year, I did a data dive and found that only 48 percent of the teachers in the district were certified and the rest were long-term substitutes who had been in the system — most of them worked anywhere from five to 15 years with no certification. I dug deeper and found almost 20 teachers who had never even been on a college campus and were teachers of record who had been in those positions from 12 to 20 years. And you question why we’re [failing]. You have to unearth this stuff if we’re going to do right by our Black and Brown children.”

What’s more, Henderson said, only 25 percent of students in Holmes County had access to the internet.

“This is in 2018,” he said.

The experience has hardened Henderson’s resolve to the point where he fashions himself an “equity warrior.”

“And one has to be, particularly for Black and Brown kids, because if not, they lose,” he said.

 Leaving Holmes County

Henderson said he’s leaving his hometown, because he believes his mission there is accomplished.

“My team and I have brought this district into the 21st century,” he said. “My work here is done and now it’s time for someone to pick it up and take it to the next level. I’ve tilled the soil, if you will.”

Now, 82 percent of teachers in the Holmes County district are certified and 98 percent of students in his district have access to the internet.

In the case of the uncertified teachers, Henderson said he required them to go back to school if they wanted to keep their jobs. In the case of the students lacking internet access, Henderson said the district distributed 400 old computers to students who didn’t have them and purchased hotspots for kids.

Henderson said he looks at schools in District 209, particularly Proviso East, in a similar light as Holmes County, which he said had a 60 percent graduation rate when he arrived and is now at 96 percent as he prepares to leave.

In Holmes, Henderson said he achieved the sharp uptick forming a program called Graduates Within Reach, which entailed a coalition of community leaders (ministers, elected officials, teachers, etc.) identifying missing students and going into the community to bring them back into school.

“We went into certain parts of the community, a group of five or six over here and there, along with a counselor, and we enroll those kids immediately,” he said. “In addition to that, everyone adopted a child. We checked in with those kids, at minimum once a week, but most teachers and administrators saw the kids almost on a daily basis just to make sure we got those kids to cross the line.”

Henderson said that he envisions possibly implementing a similar program at East, where the 4-year graduation rate is 67 percent, according to Illinois Report Card data.

Henderson said that he also plans to bring his experience at the frontlines of the intersection of COVID-19 and racial inequity.

In April, the well respected Guardian newspaper highlighted Henderson’s effort to get meals to students who were stuck at home as the pandemic raged. In Holmes County, where every child in the district qualifies for free meals, COVID-19 became so pervasive that local leaders are requiring everyone in the county to wear face masks. In Holmes, the pandemic intermingled with poverty, which required some innovation.

“Many children in this rural district come from households too poor to afford a car,” the Guardian reported. “So the superintendent embarked on an improvised project, driving 6,000 meals a day out across the county in a small fleet of 70 school buses, dropping each packet off at a stop along the route.

Even before the virus, Henderson said, he forged a remote learning partnership with Yale University, in which a teacher from Yale taught a remote AP physics course to Holmes students. The initiative resulted in a visit by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in 2018, which in turn allowed the district to secure a $3 million grant to continue the program, Henderson said.

As he helms District 209 in a time of COVID-19, Henderson said “I absolutely” see similar partnerships happening between D209 and area colleges and universities.

Henderson said he respects the work laid by his predecessor, Dr. Jesse Rodriguez, who left to become superintendent of Zion-Benton Township High School. Henderson said that he appreciated the preliminary reopening plan that D209 officials put together under Interim Supt. Dan Johnson, which called for a hybrid model in the fall, with students returning to classes for two days and working remotely for three.

“They have done a great job of putting that plan together,” he said. “It was a data-driven plan and I love that.”

Henderson also complimented D209’s facilities master plan, one of Rodriguez’s and the board’s signature accomplishments.

Full transparency

District 209’s incoming superintendent will start Aug. 3 on a 3-year, $250,000 annual employment contract.

After the school board hired executive search firm Ray and Associates to help administer a national search, 45 applicants were whittled down to three finalists, but the board wasn’t satisfied with the candidates and decided to restart the search process from scratch in April. Henderson was hired from the second pool of candidates who applied for the position.

Henderson has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Jackson State University, a master’s degree in educational leadership and supervision from Prairie View A&M University and a doctorate in education from St. John’s University.

Henderson has also undergone professional development at the Howard Urban Superintendent Academy in Washington, D.C., and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education’s Leadership Institute for School Superintendents, among other institutions.

Henderson has nearly 20 years of administrative experience in education. He’s been an English teacher, a middle school principal and sub-district superintendent in the Houston Independent School District, and a chief of staff for Normandy School District in St. Louis, among other positions.

During the hiring process, Henderson said he voluntarily provided to board members a series of potentially damaging news articles dating to 2005, when he was HISD’s North/Acres Homes Superintendent.

One article in the Houston Chronicle implicated Henderson in a scandal involving Houston ISD’s former chief school administrator, to whom Henderson directly reported.

The former chief school administrator resigned in 2005 after district officials discovered that she had given computer contracts to her son. Henderson resigned the same year. After district officials investigated the incident, however, “they found no clear evidence that the violation was intentional,” the Chronicle reports.

Another 2005 article published by the Baltimore Sun alludes to Henderson’s implication in an alleged cheating scandal.

During the July 27 interview, Henderson said that the state had found “400 schools with high erasure marks” and of those 400 schools, 22 were in HISD, with two being in his sub-district. Henderson said he immediately recommended to the superintendent of schools that “we should move forward with an external investigator and that’s exactly what we did. They found nothing was there.”

Henderson said the schools that were implicated in the investigation had majority Black and Brown student populations and were high performing.

“It’s easy for us to catch attention, when we’re doing that well,” he said.

Henderson said he volunteered the articles to the board, because “I always operate in full transparency,” before pointing out that he got caught in the crossfires in those incidents that the news articles highlighted.

Reaching out to Black and Brown boys

Henderson — whose doctoral dissertation was entitled: “Investigating Classroom Colorism: African American Males’ Academic, Behavior, and School Connectedness by Skin Tone” — said that he’s compassionate about educating young men, particularly Black and Brown boys.

“We are so absent in the lives of our Black and Brown boys, so there’s a huge need for us to be present in their lives,” he said. “I call this compassionate leadership — strong, firm and fair.”

That concern, he said, extends to bringing minority men into classrooms. As chief HR officer for St. Louis Public Schools, Henderson said he piloted a project that had his team visiting 70 Historically Black Colleges and Universities in an effort to hire more Black and Brown teachers.

Henderson said he believes the demographic profile of the district’s teaching population should reflect that of its student body. Currently, 70 percent of D209 teachers are white while 56 percent of students are Latinx and 41 percent of students are Black. But Henderson emphasized that he’s “looking for good teachers, period.”

Henderson said his first priority, however, will be to listen and learn about D209 before acting.

“My first goal is really to just listen and learn,” he said. “I’m going to take 30 days to listen and learn. Although I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations, I don’t want to come in hitting the ground running. I want to hit the ground listening, so I can get a full understanding of what the community needs.”

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