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Born To Rise

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A driving passion to create for students a school that meets, even exceeds, standards she had for her own children’s schools is what drove Deborah Kenny to jump headfirst into the raging sea of opening a charter network, the Harlem Village Academies. In a storytelling-style book, Born to Rise, Kenny offers not only her personal motivation to be a charter trailblazer in Harlem, but a down and dirty look into what it takes to open the doors on that first day of school – from funding to securing a building to finding the best teachers.

Much of what she writes about her inspiration is common among many charter school founders – social justice concern for children in the throes of poverty who can make it if only given a chance, despair over bureaucratic mandates that impede true student growth and an annoyance with union rules that handcuff teachers to doing less or keep teachers who work at sub-par levels in contact with students for way too long. Yet, Kenny holds a unique approach to the type of school she wants to open, one that puts people and culture first. Her belief, based on research and reading, particularly Peter Drucker’s Management Challenges for the 21st Century, is that building a culture where people enjoy work and empowering teachers to take ownership of their jobs will result in top outcomes for students. Like many education leaders, Kenny understands how critical it is to have a quality teacher in every classroom. But, rather than script teachers to get a top performance, she wants to give them the freedom, along with accountability, to make their own decisions. It goes without saying that she also puts a lot of time and energy into hiring the right teachers. Her standard? – “Would I want my own kids to have this teacher?”

Kenny does not shy away from testing as a form of accountability. Instead she embraces the conundrum of testing – holding her school accountable for “knocking the ball out of the park on state tests” while comprehending that the “most important things educators impart to students can’t be measured by standardized exams.” She rallies her teachers with a cheer that they do not have to teach to the test…they must teach above it. At Harlem Village Academies, it seems work.

Born to Rise is the type of book that trumpets the need for a paradigm shift in how we approach student learning and school design. Most poignant in Kenny’s testimony, though, is her lack of a call to replicate. “We will never fix education in America by trying to figure out the single best product design, then imposing it on teachers and mandating their compliance…Instead, we need to figure out how to cultivate the passion and talent of teachers.” Agreed. But, if we are not yet producing teachers with the right stuff, it wouldn’t hurt to look around and borrow from what is working elsewhere, just as Kenny herself did by giving each classroom a college name instead of a number, which she said she borrowed from KIPP charter schools.

Kenny’s innovative model is based as much on business techniques as on a specific curriculum or classroom management protocol. Her management platform is based on Drucker’s theories, which describe the nation’s move from an industrial age, manual worker type of productivity requiring a boss to spell out precise specifications, to today’s economic dependence on knowledge workers, including teachers, who require clear goals and autonomy to produce goods and services. Throughout she demonstrates her constant reflection and ability to fix what is not working, certainly a far cry from the typical public school.

Musician John Legend, a Harlem Village Academies board member, speaks often of educational equity and how a good education differentiated him from many of his friends. He wrote Harlem Village Academies’ school song, which Kenny says embodies the “shared belief that all children, not just a privileged few, are born to greatness.”

Roots in the soil of Harlem town
Growing toward the open sky
We are the seeds of hope and love,
Excellence and pride…
Deep in the heart of every child
Planted in every mind
Lies the desire to reach the clouds
We were born to rise…

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