“Kaya is a rocket ship. Be ready,” read the email from Louis Cuglietto, principal of Port Chester’s John F. Kennedy Magnet School, preparing me for an interview with his former Mount Vernon High School student, Kaya Henderson. He was right. Henderson, Chancellor of the Washington, DC, Public Schools, has an attention-grabbing, energetic personality that befits her high-profile role of trying to right the education ship in our nation’s capital.
Cuglietto, who was Henderson’s ninth-grade math teacher, saw her stratospheric promise from their first encounter. “Kaya was part of a group of insanely intelligent kids who were diverse, respectful, and multifaceted. She stood out immediately, and I could see even then that she was going to accomplish great things,” Cuglietto explains.
Henderson remembers things a little differently. While she had always excelled academically, Cuglietto’s Sequential Math II class was getting the best of her. (Ditto fitting in to high school, thanks to an awkward stage complete with “some awful big pink glasses,” admits the 43-year-old.) Cuglietto offered to stay after school to help. “We worked on geometric proofs and logic and he would tell me, ‘Henderson, you can do this,’” she recalls. “He was a constant encourager, and his belief in me gave me the confidence to succeed.”
Proof? The self-prescribed “perennial overachiever” aced the Math Regents that year with a 97.
Cuglietto’s supportive and encouraging teaching approach is one Henderson took with her into the classroom when she joined Teach for America after earning a bachelor’s in International Relations from Georgetown University. And Cuglietto’s passion for his subject, high expectations, and belief in his students’ ability to reach stringent standards is what Henderson is trying to cultivate now among her staff. “If every classroom in America was filled with teachers like Lou Cuglietto, our education system would be in a very different situation,” Henderson says.
She credits Cuglietto and the entire Mount Vernon public school system with providing a blueprint for what she wants to accomplish in DC. “A lot of the decisions I make everyday in this job are reflections of the fantastic education I had in Mount Vernon,” Henderson says.
Cuglietto and Henderson reconnected a few years ago when Cuglietto read online about her appointment to the chancellor position. As fate would have it, he was traveling to Washington because his school was selected as a US Department of Education Blue Ribbon School, and, after he reached out to her, they reunited in Henderson’s new office.
Since then, the two have remained in regular contact. When she recently received an honorary doctorate from Georgetown, Cuglietto attended the ceremony; and when Henderson had a chance to present last year at the annual Standing Ovation for DC Teachers, she chose to honor Cuglietto. “It was such a thrill to be able to thank him in such a public way for everything he did for me and for so many other kids in Mount Vernon,” Henderson says.
The feeling is mutual—Cuglietto considers the event one of the highlights of his 36-year-strong career. “Seeing students like Kaya succeed validates all the hard work we do,” he says.