By SUSANNAH CAHALAN
When Deborah Kenny heard about the more than 50,000 families citywide placed on charter-school waiting lists for the 2010-11 school year, she was “furious.”
The thought that many politicians still want to cap the number of charter schools (which are public but operate independently from the New York City Department of Education), she says, is “immoral.”
The unions that stand in the way of reform are doing a “tremendous disservice by protecting the lowest common denominator.”
Strong words, yes, but then again Kenny is no ordinary education reformer. She’s been called a “revolutionary” and a “radical.” She was honored as a the “Educator of the Year” in 2006 by Joel Klein and was featured in Oprah’s “Power Issue” in 2010. When President George W. Bush visited her school in 2007, he commented that “schools everywhere should follow” her example.
In one decade alone, Kenny has opened a network of five charter schools called Harlem Village Academies. HVA’s eighth grade is ranked No. 1 in Harlem for reading and math; 96% of her high-school students graduate in four years; and her eighth-graders were the first Harlem class in history to achieve 100% math proficiency.
This has been accomplished while never spending above the city’s district school allocated cost per student, she says, which was $19,000 in 2011.
What’s more is that these are not handpicked students. They are chosen from a blind lottery system from the same pool of Harlem and South Bronx kids who attend the poor-performing district schools down the street.
So, what is this white, former suburban soccer mom with three kids of her own doing right?
The answer is outlined in her new book “Born to Rise” and begins in 2001, when the happily married Kenny lost her husband to leukemia. That inspired her to dive head-first into a lifelong interest in education reform that stemmed from her earlier years as teacher with a Ph.D. in comparative education.
Before her first two charter schools opened in 2003 (with the help of grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), she “apprenticed” at the for-profit Edison Project, which manages schools across the country, and sought advice from Don Shalvey who had established the first charter school in California.
But she was perhaps most inspired by the best private school in the country, Sidwell Friends in Washington, DC, where President Obama now sends his children.
While she sat watching the students engage in thought-provoking discussions, she realized that her goal was to replicate this in an urban environment, and what better place than Harlem, where only 29% of fourth-graders could pass a basic reading test?
And the key to realizing this dream was, quite simply, the teachers.
“Over many decades, it’s been the size of the class, the schedule, this approach or that approach that explains why some schools do better than others. I looked around at my own experiences, and it seemed very obvious that the teacher matters more than anything else,” Kenny says.
The rub was finding those best and brightest and cultivating them.
“As a country, we have to figure out how to attract and keep the best and brightest people. The carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t work. We need to make them want to work here. And I think we’ve figured that out,” she says.
She came up with the term “a culture of ownership” that every great school — her own especially — needed to embrace. It was not enough to empower teachers, she realized, you had to create an environment where teachers made real decisions (pick the books, design the lesson plans, use their own teaching methods) and, therefore, felt responsible for the successes and failures of their students.
It could be distilled down to “accountability and freedom.”
“Accountability enables freedom, and freedom unleashes teacher passion,” she says. “The only losers are truly unqualified teachers.”
That’s why she also “absolutely” does not believe in tenure. “It doesn’t serve children, and it doesn’t serve good teachers,” she said.
Unlike in district schools with tenured teachers, Kenny’s model enables principles to hire and fire as they choose, making sure that the worst teachers don’t have a safety net.
Once you have the engine of a great school (the teachers) in place, Kenny prescribes to an almost “broken window” theory of education reform: Teachers and principles must sweat the small stuff.
Students wear uniforms, are made to walk down the hallways in orderly fashion, are given hours of homework and slight infractions (like getting distracted in class) are quickly corrected so that larger issues like bullying and fighting don’t become problematic.
The first day of school’s lesson is: “We’re strict because we love you.”
There’s clear demand for this type of tough love, just take a look at the charter-school waiting lists.
But the million-dollar question is: Can this be replicated on a larger scale to accommodate all the families vying for these spots?
“ï®Yes, absolutely,” she say unequivocally. “The only way to do it is to get rid of tenure, get rid of every single roadblock to principals being able to hire and fire at will, and help teachers understand that accountability is not just best for kids; it’s best for teachers.”