Ed reform’s hopeful revolutionaries

“This should be a moment of renaissance in education in America.”
– President Bill Clinton, keynote speaker, KIPP School Summit 2012

Advocating for students isn’t easy. Reform opponents regularly engage in ad hominem and anonymous attacks, tactics they condemn in others. The vitriol and anger they express are unworthy of the children they claim to be fighting for.

So it was refreshing to be with educators at last week’s KIPP conference in Orlando who reject that tone. The idea of spending a week with 3,000 dedicated educators, who champion the idea of putting students first, was a lifeline I grabbed with both hands.

In all of my eight years in education, I can honestly report I’ve never experienced anything like a KIPP gathering. The differences were startling and immediate.

KIPP teachers don’t complain about long hours or low salaries. KIPP teachers don’t fear change; they embrace it.

KIPP teachers don’t hold sessions on how to defeat education reform. They don’t hold sessions on how to defeat anti-reformers, either.

KIPP teachers don’t allow anyone to use uninvolved parents or poverty as an excuse for low performance. They don’t allow students to, either.

KIPP teachers don’t teach to the test.

Instead, KIPP teachers are focused on solutions. Their positive energy is contagious. They have hope for the future and talk about what they can do, which is:

Build a better tomorrow. Reach more students who need them the most. Double the number of kids in their schools. Double the number of their graduates in college. This is impressive, considering KIPP graduates go on to graduate from college at four times the rate of non-KIPP students from the same communities.

KIPP teachers at the summit talked about being a catalytic force in the communities they serve. Hearing them talk about how they can be even better was enough to make even the most beaten-down reformer feel good about the movement again.

But then it got better.

Then KIPP students got up to speak. They talked about their schools with gratitude and hope. They discussed what makes a good teacher.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Good teachers have high expectations and energy, the students said. They go the extra mile. They stay after school to help students write an outstanding essay for AP exams. They run SAT flash cards. They tell other teachers when a student is slipping. They call every parent on a weekly basis. They walk behind students in the hallway and remind them to tuck in their shirts. They believe in their kids when they don’t yet believe in themselves.

Those kinds of teachers at KIPP are the rule, never the exception, the students said.

As I sat there, blown away, I had to remind myself I had only experienced the opening ceremonies. But those same tearful moments and amazing stories, that same sense of awe, occurred in every session, hallway and encounter during day two, day three and day four.

I moved among them, these revolutionary figures armed with nothing but determination and humor, and was struck by the lack of bitterness and anger. They didn’t feel scorned or defeated. They were alive with missionary zeal.

They were diverse, too. They represented many different religions and ethnic backgrounds. They represented all ages. This speaks to another of their strengths. There is no KIPP “type.” They all have different inspirations, and truly believe they can do more together than separate.

Work hard, be nice.

This was also a friendly group – casual and laid back, kind and open, serious only about helping kids learn.

KIPP schedules retreats at different times all year, as professional development is key. Teachers and staff regularly visit other schools to learn and grow. No one talks about competition creating animosity among educators. “That’s absurd,” a KIPP teacher from New York told me.

When they talk about parental support, there is no blame. No accusations. No shortcuts. They talk about ways to get parents to see they’re all on the same team and empower parents to stay involved.

One of my favorite moments of the week was when a speaker said his session wouldn’t be about bashing education reforms or standardized testing. KIPP teachers looked around, confused. Then he explained he had been leading sessions at traditional schools and forgot to take that slide out of his presentation for KIPP.

I talked with KIPP teachers and friends who lament that while intellect and ability are evenly distributed throughout the world, opportunity is not. The lamenting doesn’t last too long, only a few seconds, until someone suggests they talk about ways to change that.

If there’s a better way, we find it.

KIPP teachers are encouraged and expected to think outside the box. New ideas are welcomed and encouraged. Teachers give students a way to create programs and make a difference in their communities and around the world.

These KIPP teachers and students reaffirmed my faith in people, in schools, in teachers, and in our planet.

Apparently, President Bill Clinton feels the same way. The gala and awards ceremony featured Clinton as the keynote speaker.

“Pessimism is making the decision to fail in advance,” he said, reminding everyone that “the circumstance of our birth is not our destiny.”

He challenged everyone in the room to find a way to bring more KIPP schools to more kids.  “It’s a good burden,” he said. “KIPP is in the ‘how’ business. How to turn good intentions into results for kids.”

He pumped up the crowd with personal stories about teachers who meant the world to him and said “factories of democracies” like KIPP schools should be replicated all over the country.

KIPP is in 20 states, plus DC. But even though they are growing and reaching more kids every year, like President Clinton I can’t help but wish they’d speed it up. This model can work in middle-class areas. These dedicated teachers can motivate those who want to learn a trade. All kids could benefit from such enthusiasm and encouragement.

That’s what I found myself pondering at the end of the week. My heart soars for the kids who win the lottery and get into KIPP, while my heart breaks for those who don’t have access to the same opportunities.

But I won’t dwell on that for too long. After all, there must be a solution, because if there isn’t a way, we’ll make one. That familiar mix of grit and joy that only comes from being on a mission to save kids is back. I remember it well.

Thanks, KIPP, for the friendly reminder.

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former teacher, columnist and political activist currently working to improve and preserve public education for StudentsFirst. Her views are her own.

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BY Catherine Durkin Robinson

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former teacher and columnist for the Tampa Tribune and Creative Loafing. A Democratic activist for 30 years, she got her start in the education choice movement as a grassroots leader in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Maine working with StudentsFirst. She has been organizing scholarship parents since 2013.