Responding to the global need for educational equity

As co-founders of The One World Network of Schools, Aaron Brenner and I recently had the opportunity to share our thoughts with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation on how our work in the US helps children around the globe.

Read below or click here to read our thoughts on Responding to the Global Need for Educational Equity directly on the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation blog.

What do parents around the globe want for their children? More and more, we’re learning that they’re united in their desire for their kids to receive a quality education.  While we knew that families in the U.S. wanted great teachers, strong leaders, and a clear pathway to and through college, we were surprised that parents in other countries also yearned for that kind of education. We learned that there was a need for educational equity not only here in the U.S., but also abroad.

With this new understanding, we used the knowledge we had gained from our work with KIPP in the U.S., and we began thinking about how it could apply to places such as Israel, Japan, India, South Africa, and Chile. In all these countries, children in at-risk communities were bored in school, and cut off from knowledge, skill, and character development opportunities. Students dropped out of school at similar rates, and found similarly few opportunities for employment. And their parents were similarly desperate for great education options to help their children shape their own destiny.

Responding to the global need

And so we cofounded The One World Network of Schools, with our colleague Sunita Arora, to bring our learnings from our KIPP work to others around the globe. Today, One World supports highly motivated leaders in six countries around the world—Mexico, Israel, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Chile—to create excellent schools in high-need communities. From the bustling fish markets of Mumbai to the immigrant hub of Haifa to the outskirts of Santiago, One World’s leaders share families’ visions for their children and are working to build schools that meet students’ needs.

Although we’re still in the early stages of our international work, we’ve identified three elements from our work in the U.S. to developing lasting educational models:

  1. Transformational Schools – Getting schools on the ground and delivering on the promises made to parents at those schools.
  2. Leadership Development – Developing leadership at all levels so talented and visionary leaders are prepared to scale excellence far beyond the walls of a single school.
  3. Cross-Pollination – Encouraging collaboration and cross-pollination so the successes of schools and school systems can be shared throughout the country and the world.

An example of our global work

What does this look like in one of our countries of practice? In Mexico, for example, we sought out and developed a handful of courageous leaders willing to do whatever it takes for their students and communities. We supported these leaders in opening their own schools, and then launched a Latin American Leadership Institute to help spread their best practices and prepare the next generation of school leaders. To establish the work of cross-pollination, we recruited and trained a local executive director to lead an emerging Mexican network of One World schools, to help facilitate collaboration among leaders throughout our communities. In all of our partner countries, the path to these three elements has looked similar.

What’s next?

This is just the beginning of what we know will be a long road of hard work in schools around the world. By taking our learnings from our work in the U.S. and applying it to schools in other countries, we are hoping to close the education gap that appears to be a problem shared by other countries outside the U.S.

We are encouraged by the driving force behind our efforts: the families in our communities, united by a common desire for great education. When we see students provided with opportunities through education—those their parents hoped they’d be afforded – we’ll know we’re a “success.”

Parents around the globe are hungry for transformational schools. We’re hard at work planting the seeds that will have to grow and flourish for those parents to see their children’s dreams fulfilled.

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Why College?

Great guest blog today from Richard Barth. Why is it that people who argue college isn’t for all kids have college degrees themselves…..and make sure THEIR children go to college? One Day……

It’s a question I’ve been hearing more and more lately. Over the last few years, Americans have been inundated with news coverage of the high cost of college, and front-page stories of young people graduating with crushing debt in an uncertain job market, living at home and working part-time.

As CEO of KIPP, I travel a lot. Almost everywhere I go these days, people have read these stories. And then they ask me: Why is KIPP so focused on preparing kids for college? What if college isn’t for everyone?

Here’s what I say to them: College may not be for everyone, but every child should be able to go to a school that will prepare them with the knowledge and skills needed for college. A college degree is the most proven engine of freedom that we have, and right now too few students have access to it.

At KIPP, we have 141 public charter schools in 20 states and DC, serving over 50,000 students, with an additional 4,500 alumni in college. Over 85 percent of KIPP students come from low-income backgrounds. Currently, only 10 percent of American students from low-income families are graduating from college by their mid-20s, as compared with over 70 percent of students from high-income families. At KIPP, our alumni are graduating at four times the rate of their peers, and we are working to get that even higher—because we know that a college education can transform our students’ lives.

The opportunity to earn a college degree is crucial for all young Americans, especially those growing up in poverty. Research is clear that college grads have weathered both the recent recession and the subsequent rebound far better than non-college grads. According to a new Pew Center report, US workers with a high school diploma earn just over 60 percent of what college graduates earn.

Reading the Pew Center report, I was struck by the responses from young adults aged 25-32—the Millennials whose post-college struggles we’ve heard so much about. When asked whether they viewed their jobs as a stepping stone to a career, nearly 90 percent of college graduates in this group said yes; meanwhile, among those with a high school diploma or less, nearly half said their work was “just a job to get [them] by.”

And it’s not just about the money, either. Going to and through college opens up experiences and relationships for students, in ways they might not otherwise have access to. At KIPP, we’ve seen that going to college, and graduating from college, can have a transformational impact on a student’s academic pursuits and vision for what they want to do in the world.

In the Pew Center report, almost 9 out of every 10 college grads said that—even with all the money and time invested—their college education was worth it. So, for all the individual stories of struggle that we’ve heard, the very people who are living through the tough times are very clear on whether college matters for them. Yes, they say. It matters a lot.

Demographics should not dictate a child`s destiny. That’s why we believe that every student should have access to a public education that prepares them for college, whether or not they ultimately choose to go. Children growing up in Los Angeles and Chicago and New Orleans and St. Louis and Houston and the Arkansas Delta need equal preparation for success in college and life.

Instead of giving up on college as a goal for underserved students, we should address the challenges that keep them from earning college degrees. We know that the quality of PreK-12 education a child receives plays the biggest role in whether they are prepared to succeed in higher education. But we also need to think beyond PreK-12, and make sure our students are supported once they get to college.

At KIPP, we have learned the hard way that where a student goes to college affects not only their chances of graduating, but also their financial burden. We’ve seen that KIPP alumni are much more likely to finish college if they attend schools with high graduation rates for underserved students. We’ve seen that seemingly expensive schools may actually offer more financial aid, and thus be less costly, than institutions with lower price tags. We’ve seen that kids from low-income communities do better when there are enough other kids on their college campus who come from a similar economic background. And so we have focused on making sure our students and their families really understand that it’s not just about going to college—it’s about going to the right college for them.

At KIPP, we’ve distilled this down into two words: “Match Matters.” We are encouraging our high school juniors to make college wish lists based on data, so that they’re assessing everything that these colleges have to offer. We are working to get fairly scientific in our approach, and we are optimistic that approach will pay off for our students. And we are committed to sharing our best practices with the broader education community, so that we can help move that conversation forward.

We don’t need to add to the loud chorus telling low-income children that they are not college material. Instead, let’s reframe it: if college is the right choice for children of affluence in this country, it’s probably the right goal for children growing up in poverty as well. And then let’s get to work helping our collective children get to and through college.

Post originally appeared on KIPP Blog, June 17, 2014.

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If I Were 22: Discover Your Purpose by Finding Your Mardi Gras

In Fall 1990, I turned 22 and started my senior year at Penn. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, except for a vague aspiration to replace Vince Neil as lead singer for Mötley Crüe. But I didn’t have the chops — or the hair — to be a rock star, so I figured I’d better choose a more viable career option. Law school seemed like a good path.

I signed up to take the LSAT, figuring I’d apply to law school later on. As I looked at the calendar, I realized that the LSAT fell on the same weekend as Mardi Gras. Everyone has their priorities, and this suddenly became one of mine. Trying to make the best of the situation, I decided to switch my test location to Tulane University in New Orleans.

I flew down to New Orleans on a Friday. When we arrived in the Crescent City, the party was in full swing, and the atmosphere was raucous and joyful. But I was on a mission. I went straight to my room and studied logic problems until it was time to sleep.

The next day, I went into an enormous lecture hall at Tulane with just three or four other students to take the LSAT. Halfway through the test, I had an epiphany: If I’d gone to all this trouble to schedule the LSAT around Mardi Gras, I must not have really wanted to be a lawyer after all. So I finished the test as best as I could, and went out to join the celebration and enjoy the first day of the mysterious rest of my life.

Needless to say, I never ended up applying to law school (though, given the circumstances, I’m pretty proud of how I scored on the LSAT). Instead, I took some time to explore, trying lots of different things to figure out what I liked. I took a one-semester leave from school, becoming a bartender and bouncer. Over the summer, I traveled to Israel and worked at an absorption center for Ethiopian refugees. I was deeply moved by interacting with the refugees, and I realized that I very much enjoyed working with children. By the end of the summer, I knew I wanted to work in social justice, and ideally do something that would allow me to continue to work with children. Teaching seemed like a natural fit, and much more appealing than law school.

After returning to the U.S. and finishing my degree, I earned an internship in D.C. with Senator Paul Simon while I applied to Teach For America’s 1992 corps. Fortunately, I got in, and taught fifth grade in inner-city Houston. I ended up becoming friends with a fellow corps member, Dave Levin, and he introduced me to his teacher mentor, an absolute force of nature named Harriett Ball. We studied Harriett’s teaching closely, absorbing every bit of wisdom she had to offer. She showed us what was possible in the classroom, and we wanted to emulate her. At the end of our second year of teaching, Dave and I decided to try and create an entire school program, with the goal of getting underserved kids on the path to and through college.

So we started KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, with 47 fifth-grade students in a Houston district classroom. The following year, Dave moved back to New York, and we started hiring teachers for two separate middle schools. It took a lot of hard work, and a lot of learning from our mistakes and successes. But with the support of many people, KIPP was able to expand in size and scope. Today, KIPP is a national network of 141 public charter schools serving over 50,000 students in 20 states and D.C. In New Orleans, where this story starts, there are now nine KIPP schools across the city, serving kids in elementary through high school.

If you’d told me when I was 22 that this is where I’d have ended up, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. When you’re just starting out, it may seem tempting to settle quickly into a career path, just because it seems reasonable or stable. But I encourage all 22-year-olds to do the opposite. Go out and explore. Start figuring out what you’re really passionate about, what really makes you tick. Hone your talents and pick up useful skills. And if you find yourself in a place you don’t really want to be, go out and look for something different.

Nowhere is it written that when you’re 22, you have to decide what your career will be for the next 60 years.

So find your Mardi Gras, and go explore. It might be the start of the strangest and most exciting life you’ve ever known. :)

Post originally appeared on LinkedIn, May 27, 2014.

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Uplift CEO: High Performing Charters Take Responsibilities Seriously

Welcome Yasmin Bhatia, Uplift Charter CEO, as a guest blogger with a great piece on charter school accountability:

Uplift CEO Yasmin Bhatia: In the past week, there has been discussion in The Dallas Morning News and in other Texas media about the level of accountability for charter schools. As the CEO of North Texas’ largest charter school network, Uplift Education, I think it’s vital to understand how we are held accountable and the disadvantage we face based on how the state funds our schools.

It is also important to know what’s at stake. In Dallas County, 475,000 children attend public charter and local ISDs. Almost 350,000 of them come from low-income families. Less than half begin school ready for kindergarten. Only 14% of seniors are ready for college. Nationally, only 8% of students living in poverty will graduate from college by their mid-20s. Those who do graduate college will earn $1 million more in lifetime earnings.

In most cases, high performing charter schools are having a significant impact on college readiness, so much so that President Obama and Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn are aligned in supporting the replication and expansion of high-performing non-profit charter management organizations through the Charter Schools Program.  To date, 18 Senators from across the political spectrum have co-sponsored legislation to support the growth of high-quality charter schools.

At Uplift, we have had success showing first-generation college students can achieve at high levels. Despite what the statistics predict about their future, our students are outperforming state averages by as much as 24% on annual STAAR exams.

Texas sets a high bar for public charter schools, which operate with more local autonomy from the state. A new state law requires Texas to shut down a charter school after three consecutive years of failing performance on any combination of financial and academic ratings. Local ISD schools with failing ratings can stay open for as many as seven years before the Commissioner is forced to close them. We support this law because the right to educate kids should come with strict standards.

Some have suggested that public charter schools spend tax dollars with no accountability to the public, but the opposite is true.  We abide by transparency and accountability requirements that are almost identical to local ISD schools, including annual financial audits from the state.  Like all public schools, we post our CEO salary on our website and make current financial statements available online for each of the five districts in the Uplift network.

Currently, Uplift has more than 10,000 children on our waitlists.  We believe in Texas parents’ ability to make the best choice for their children. We believe that volunteer boards of directors, held to stringent quality standards, can respond to the needs of those parents, who are seeking us out in large numbers.

Our biggest roadblock in meeting that demand is a lack of access to school buildings.  Charters spend as much as 20% of our annual operational budgets on the growing cost of facilities because the state provides no facilities funding. When a mother decides that an Uplift school is the right program for her son, about $950 in public funding disappears. For our 11,500 Uplift scholars, that represents a nearly $11 million gap in annual state funding. We would like to see those dollars directed to our classrooms, to our teacher performance pay program, and to enriched learning opportunities like STEM education, athletics, and fine arts programs.

Public charter schools have played a pivotal role in our educational system for nearly 20 years, and parent demand for high-quality charter seats is growing. We hope the Dallas community will join us in asking Texas lawmakers to erase the funding gaps between public charter and neighborhood schools to provide opportunity for all Texas children.

Yasmin Bhatia
CEO, Uplift Education

Post originally appeared on the blog, Uplift Voices, May 15, 2014.

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What the Charter Movement Wants

The debate over public education in Texas has been loud and heated. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we debate productively. But we’ve been bogged down in trivial fights that have prevented us from finding real solutions. If we want to set children up for success in the future, we need to think bigger.

The need for excellent college-prep education in Texas is growing. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the earnings gulf between high school graduates and college graduates is larger than ever. But consider this statistic: Only 8.5 percent of Texas students from low-income backgrounds who started eighth grade in 2001 finished college within six years of graduating from high school, as The Texas Tribune reported earlier this year.

In light of budget cuts to public education in recent years, it’s a tough time for educators in Texas to tackle this challenge. But I have hope. Schools and teachers across the state are finding new ways to solve this challenge. Parents, with growing numbers of school options, are voting with their feet by flocking to charters and other schools of choice with strong results. We need more of these schools, and we need them soon.

When I co-founded KIPP 20 years ago in a Houston ISD classroom, that college-prep focus drove our work. Thanks to support from both district and policy leaders, KIPP has grown to 141 public charter schools nationwide, including 37 here in Texas. KIPP students in Houston are graduating from college at five times the rate of their socioeconomic peers in Texas. We’re proud of this growth, but we know we need to do even better — not just for our KIPP students, but for all public school students.

We know that KIPP — and public charter schools in general — are only part of the answer. No single public school solution, district or charter, is going to move the needle on college completion in Texas. We need many solutions, and the only way to find them is to empower our educators on the ground. Instead of thinking top-down, we should be thinking bottom-up.

What might that look like in Texas? I have three suggestions:

Give all public schools the same freedoms as charter schools. The premise of charter schools has always been more freedom in exchange for more accountability. We know that great school leaders and teachers are the key to any effective school. We need to foster an environment in which all public school leaders — district and charter — have the freedom to hire teachers and organize their schools as they see fit. And if these schools fail to deliver a high-quality education, we should hold them accountable by closing or restructuring them. We already have terrific examples to follow in Texas, like Spring Branch ISD’s partnership with KIPP and YES Prep, which not only facilitates the creation of more flexible schools but allows charters and district schools to share school facilities and collaborate on teacher training.

Change how we train education leaders. Schools and school systems are only as good as their leaders. If we’re going to give principals the freedom to create new models, we need to make sure they’re qualified and prepared to do so. Likewise, we need to prepare school system leaders and superintendents to oversee these newer, freer schools and to hold them accountable for their results. Programs like Rice University’s Education Entrepreneurship Program are leading the way, and we need more programs like this to help increase the number and quality of excellent leaders throughout the state.

Ensure fair funding for all public school students. Texas now has a two-tiered funding system, in which different kinds of public schools get different amounts of funding. Analyses of Texas Education Agency data show that public charter schools in Texas receive an average of $1,000 less in public per pupil funding than district schools. To ensure that all public schools have the resources to develop and implement solutions and be responsive to their families and communities, we need to level the playing field by providing charter schools the same per-pupil funding as all public schools.

These are not the only steps we’ll need to take to turn our system from top-down to bottom-up, but they may be the most crucial. If we want Texas students to be prepared for college and the world beyond, we will need to chart a much different path for our public schools. :)

Post originally appeared on The Texas Tribune, May 12 2014.

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Three Things That Help Schools Around the World to Thrive

As a parent, my deepest wish is that my children will have it better than I had. In the US, we call this the American Dream. But, as I’ve learned, there’s nothing uniquely American about it.

Over the past several years, I’ve been talking to parents in India, Mexico, South Africa, Chile and Israel – and I’ve learned two important things. One, all of these parents have the same hopes and dreams for their children that we in the US do. And two, these parents believe, correctly, that education will help their kids get where they want them to be.

Now more than ever, a quality education – especially a college degree – can help determine a child’s lot in life. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), people with bachelor’s degrees can expect to earn 50% more than those with high-school diplomas. And while a college degree might not be right for all children, the skills that can get you into college certainly are.

Wanting to give underserved students the sort of education that leads to better opportunities in life, Dave Levin and I founded the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) 20 years ago. We started in Houston, with a single class of fifth-graders, but the programme has since grown into a national network of 141 public schools serving more than 50,000 kids. Our alumni are graduating from college at four to five times the rate of their socio-economic peers. Recently Aaron Brenner and I founded The One World Network of Schools, to support educators around the world who are starting KIPP-inspired schools.

Our challenge is to figure out what sort of educational system will help students everywhere get into college. No one has cracked this nut yet. But through my work I’ve seen how we might be able to.

Take the 3-2-1 School in Mumbai’s Crawford Fish Market slums, for example. It’s a One World Network School founded by Gaurav Singh, an alumnus of Teach for India. Gaurav is passionate and dedicated, with a clear vision of where he wants his students to go. The school is bursting with great teachers who offer rigorous research-based instruction and create a culture of high expectations, with a strong focus on student independence and joy. As a result, the school is in great demand. Despite enrolling more than four times the number of students of other primary schools in the area, it still has students on its waiting list.

When I look at successful institutions like the 3-2-1 School, I see they have three factors in common. First, there is generous investment in talented teachers. Great teaching is the single most influential factor in a child’s education, and the best school programmes recognize that. They go out and win the marketing war to get the best teaching candidates into their classrooms, and then they develop the teachers’ skills and keep them in the classroom for the long term.

Secondly, the best school systems have a framework of bottom-up change. By this I mean letting solutions bubble up from within the educational community, instead of having one-size-fits-all policies imposed from above. This might mean nurturing charter schools or public-private partnerships, as in the case of Mumbai’s 3-2-1 School, and giving all public schools – traditional and charter – the freedom to innovate.

Finally, rather than treating college as separate from primary and secondary education, successful systems see them as different stops on the same journey. At the 3-2-1 School, students know from the day they walk through the door that they will be attending university, and their entire educational experience is structured to help them get there.

These three things are clear and proven to have an impact in communities around the world. They aren’t the whole solution, of course, but can help bring us closer to the day when all children, everywhere, will succeed in school and in life. :)

This is part of a series for the launch of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2014 Awardees.

Post originally appeared on the World Economic Forum’s blog, March 26 2014.

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Setting the Record Straight

At KIPP, we believe in having a free and open debate about public charter schools. But when the facts are misrepresented, it’s important to set the record straight.

This week, the San Antonio Express-News ran an op-ed by UT Austin professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, which included some misleading claims about KIPP charter schools. These claims are entirely based on an outdated and discredited report. As one of the co-founders of KIPP, and a 22-year veteran of public education in Texas, I want to clarify the facts.

First, the attrition data Dr. Heilig cites is inaccurate and heavily biased. According to the New York Times, the Western Michigan University researchers “use[d] questionable data sources and analytic techniques to push a position that is antagonistic to KIPP.” A 2013 report by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP’s overall student attrition is not higher or lower than that of neighboring district schools, and that KIPP’s results could not be explained by attrition. In fact, Mathematica found that KIPP middle school students made significant learning gains in all grades and subjects, even when factors like attrition and parental motivation were taken into account.

Second, the claim that KIPP spends $5,600 more per student is simply untrue. The WMU researchers arrived at this number by cherry-picking financial data from only a handful of KIPP schools. They also didn’t account for the money KIPP spends on securing and renovating school buildings, since—like all charter schools—KIPP schools receive little or no public funding for facilities. When fully grown, KIPP schools have about the same per-pupil spending as neighboring district schools.

For more information on the WMU report, you can read KIPP’s full statement here. For more on the 2013 Mathematica report—the largest and most rigorous report on KIPP to date—click here.

Plow on,

Mike Feinberg :)

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Message From Vanessa Ramirez

I just received an amazing newsletter from KIPP Alumni Association Director and my former 5th grade student nearly 20 years ago, Vanessa Ramirez.  As you can read for yourselves, Vanessa kept it very real – and inspiring.  Thank you, Vanessa, for taking the road less travelled and now helping others on their journey, too!

Man, I’ve thought a lot about what to write as there was a lot of inspiration this month; but, ultimately, everything led to labels, labels, and labels. I’m currently STUCK on the 9 seasons of One Tree Hill… don’t ask me why, but that show makes me feel damn good about my ultra-simple life. During one of their Season 4 shows, a KIPP-like English teacher brings up the topic of labels and why we often rely on them to tell us more about the people they represent. He wrote your typical high school list of labels on the board: “Jock”, “Homecoming Queen”, “Geek”, “Nice”, “Very Nice”, and I know I’m missing one more. Anyway, these kids are all paired with someone representing a life polar-opposite of his/her life. They then spend 50 minutes discussing the intricacies of their high school life and label, the fear of the unknown awaiting them after that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it walk across their high school stage, and breaking down misconceptions. For an introvert like myself, those kinds of shows, actually any of the decently-written ones, always make me reflect. And that brings me to stories about a sex worker, Home Depot, and Vanessa.

Let’s start with Lauren, a sex worker I met two weeks ago. I don’t know how much you have been following human trafficking news, but the U.S. Justice Department ranked Houston “as one of the top destination cities for human trafficking”. I, of course, follow anything impacting women, but, most importantly, children. One of my favorite organizations, Children At Risk, is doing amazing work around this issue and recently published an article stating that “on average, both Houston and Dallas have about 6,000 runaways each annually. According to National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children, an estimated one out of every three children that run away is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. Even more frightening is the fact that the average age of entry into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 years old”. SOOO, Vanessa being, well, Vanessa, was nosy and attended awareness sessions, but NOTHING could have prepared me for my 4-hour conversation with Lauren. My other jobs pull me into several different conversations with people from all walks of life and that’s exactly how I met Lauren. I was reading something in the CPS waiting room and I heard someone say “hella”. That’s a Bay area thing, so I looked up, made eye contact with Lauren and asked her where she was from. She said “Oregon”, I said “cool”, and then went back to my article. About 3.75 minutes later, I heard a “why?” I have a tendency to get lost in my reading, so I looked up a bit startled, and realized she was talking to me. “Oh, I lived in the bay for a while and “hella” is a bay thing… thought maybe you were from there”. “Oh, baby, that was my second home”. Now, I definitely must have looked confused because Lauren looked like she was no older than 16 or 17 years old, but look who’s talking… Anyway, Lauren then proceeds to sit right next to me and asked if they were taking my baby away from me. I don’t know what got into me, but I probably stared at her for one solidly-awkward minute, got teary-eyed, shook my head and explained what I was doing there. She was hooked. She asked about my other jobs, asked about me and my life and offered to do anything she could to support me and my vision; but then she said “actually, I better not. I’m only going to be here for one more week and then I’m gone”. Lately, I’ve been too direct, so I flat out asked “what about your baby?” She looked confused and asked “what baby?” Hmmmmmm… And then proceeds to tell me “oh no, baby, my pimp has a no-baby policy”. I didn’t even ask what she was doing there as I was stuck on the pimp comment. I am embarrassed to say that all the questions that followed were based on the media’s inaccurate portrayal of prostitution. Think ignorant, think misconception, think labels. I started asking Lauren ridiculously phrased questions about her life and she eloquently answered all of my questions. When I pushed on her need to rely on a pimp since she was clearly capable of speaking for herself, she, again, eloquently made a beautiful case for how hers was different, needed, wanted, and fill in the blank with anything we’ve ever said about our own poisonous relationships. I could tell she didn’t want to talk about him anymore, so I took a chance and asked her “why do this? You are capable of doing anything in this world…why this?” What followed has left me seeking more answers, but I stopped here. “I don’t know. Ever since I can remember my mom’s boyfriend was always touching me and doing other things to me, so when I asked my mom if I could do this, and she said ‘why not, you’re already one’, I said ‘why not’, too. 6 years later, I’ve visited 17 states, and then I meet you, little V. And you’re no different than me… you have four jobs because you like to feel needed. And I do, too.” Dammmmmmmmmmmn Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiina, or better, yet, Lllllllllllaaaaaaaaaaauren. I’m not so sure why I have four jobs, but I told Lauren I would tell her story, but, most importantly, she wanted me to tell you that she is “smart, big-hearted, and proud of [you]”.

This leads to Home Depot. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I’ve been working on my relationship with my dad, whom I have ALWAYS described as an alcoholic. There is no speech, or interview, or piece of writing that I’ve not used the word “alcoholic” right after the word “dad”. I guess I’ve always used that as a crutch: “my relationships with men suck because my dad is an alcoholic”, “I am weird because my dad is an alcoholic”, hell this one’s next, “I don’t comb my hair because my dad is an alcoholic”. Stupid. For the last 29 years, my relationship with my dad has suffered, yes, because of what I saw and experienced; but MOSTLY because of the baggage that comes with such a label. Well three weekends ago, I spent 10 back-to-back hours with my dad as we were putting sheetrock in my bedroom. Back in the early 1990s, we had this program called “take your daughter to work day” during which I would either paint houses or clean them. Well, that experience paid off because I was a pro with that quick set.  Dad and I were getting ready to apply the next coat when we realized we needed to make a quick run to Home Depot. As soon as we stepped in, my dad walked towards the Paint department, but I stopped by the toolset display. My dad, noticing that I had stopped, turns around and asked me if I had a toolset. I said no and he then proceeds to grab a cart, throws in a box and says “Ven”. I realized then that my dad has the same love for tools that I have for office supplies. He was so giddy, describing what this and that was for, mind you, I’m clueless, but mastered the “Ahhhh, okayyy” response. That day marked the FIRST day in my adult life (or ever) that I’ve allowed my dad to be my dad. I then start telling him about my doorknob not working, my showerhead leaking, and you could tell he loved every second of it as he excitedly grabbed the tools he’d need to fix all those things. We get to the cash register and I pull out my debit card, but my dad beat me and handed his to the attendant. The attendant says “ooooooo, you lucky” to me and before I could say anything, my dad, in his broken English and with a big ‘ole smile, says “she my baby”. The attendant politely smiled and handed my dad his card and receipt. As we begin to walk out, my dad grabs my hand. With my heart beating really hard, I tightly grab ahold of his and to break the awkward silence hovering over our way-too-long walk back to the car, I asked about lunch. As I say this, my dad points out the ‘Tamales’ sign hanging on a truck in the parking lot. I look over and see a lady and her two baby girls inside the truck. We walk over, the lady comes out and sweat is pouring down her cheek… I try to look into the truck to make sure the babies are breathing. They were. My dad places his order, the lady hands us our order, and my dad pays. As we get to my dad’s truck, he takes a Tamale bite, and then I take a bite. Those freaking things were disgusting and I was about to tell my dad that when he asks, “aren’t they good?!” I turn to look at him and I say “daddy, I know you’ve had better tamales”. But then he says, “I have, but knowing we helped that lady makes them taste so good, don’t they?” Woah- talk about meeting someone you’ve known your whole life for the first time. I’ve shared that story with a few people and they all said the same thing, “V, you got your heart from your dad”. So I’d like to re-introduce you to my dad. My dad is a very kind man that probably had kids too soon. He lives in Cleveland, TX (about an hour and a half from downtown Houston) and drives in to work every morning at 4 in the morning… he’s been doing that for 20 years and his job is off of 610 and Woodway. Talk about grit and hard work. My dad doesn’t get a lot of calls from his daughters, mostly because we allowed his early life to define him, but he now gets weekly calls from one :) . My dad is a baker, and so was my grandpa, so he makes all kinds of Mexican bread- Rosca de Reyes is his thhhaaang, though :) . He LOVES his four grandkids because they don’t know him as anyone other than Papa Toño, a silly, silly grandpa who buys them mangos every Sunday and goes to every soccer game he’s invited to. My dad has made a lot of mistakes, but he is a great man and the only dad I’ll ever have.

And last, but not least… Vanessa :) . My high school experience, which was NOTHING like the Tree Hill High too-grown experience, jumpstarted my first experience with labels. I stuck out like a sore thumb at Episcopal High School and I thought that if I put my guard down, my peers would judge me based on what they saw; so, I made every attempt to prove them…well, right. I was SOOOOO committed to not “selling out” that I forgot I was there to learn from others, which led to all sorts of negative perceptions of me. When I left Episcopal, I made sure to go to a college where I could reinvent myself to show “them” that there was more substance to me- beyond the cover. And I did just that. However, anyone that knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is hypocrisy and the last two stories proved that I had become exactly what I detested… a hypocrite. For years I have fought labels and have discouraged others from using labels because of how dangerously easy is to live up to or judge others based on them. It was until this past weekend, though, that I found out just how much of a hypocrite I was being when I heard myself say “but you know I’m stubborn, why are you surprised by [my actions]?” I had clearly embraced the not-so-self-imposed :) label of stubbornness and was using that label to justify why I did what I did and why I was going to continue to do what I did. Boooooo. Me. Or how about those times we change our ways only to “show them”? That always happens after a break up, in the personal and professional sense.

I was talking to someone I consider a best friend a couple nights ago, this past Monday to be exact, about this and our inability to change things for the better until we need to “show” others. For whatever reason, we never say, “I’ll show me”, when we criticize ourselves or live up to our self-imposed labels. Why not surprise ourselves every now and then?

Alumni- I challenge you not to step outside your comfort zone, but instead expand it. So you’re adventurous, great! It’s okay to be a homebody today. So you’re a jock, it’s okay to make going to the library everyday your new sport… trust me, girls/boys love the studious ones, no matter what they say :) . So you “always speak your mind”, great, just listen tomorrow. So you’re shy, agree to do public speaking for KIPP :) . So you’re always messy, cool, be extra-clean next Monday (through Sunday). And if you’re “cautious”, completely understand… but live a little and be vulnerable. My activist mindset got really good about identifying when “the man” was putting my people in a box. Little did I realize then that “the man” had nothing on Vanessa when it came to putting things, people, or myself in a box. I’m surprising myself today by not telling you how I’m going to surprise myself. :) Do the same, but do tell ME. :)

Vanessa Ramirez ’02

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Powerful Words from the Peanut Field

Below are great stories and pics from our school leader and co-founder of KIPP Gaston, Tammi Sutton.  Gaston is 1.5 hours northeast of Raleigh, NC and off of I-95 just south of the VA border. Gaston has a population of 800 – it’s not as rural as it gets as the town does have one stoplight:)   KIPP Gaston was one of the first schools we helped start in 2001 when we started replicating KIPP.  It’s located in a peanut field, and as we can read below, the peanut field is also growing hope and transformative change.
Plow on,
Mike :)
From Tammi……

Two weeks ago I was able to attend Morehouse College’s graduation with the Jackson family (Tyra Jackson -mom, Kayla Jackson – Pride of 2015, Maya Jackson – Pride of 2018 and Randi Jackson - Pride of 2020), and Myles’ grandparents) and see Myles Nicholson earn his college degree.  Remove the pouring rain, our drenched clothing and the thunder and rain that punctuated President Obama’s Commencement Speech, and the Morehouse graduation was still unlike any other.  The beautiful way in which a rich history and legacy of tradition is interwoven with a charge for social change makes a Morehouse’ graduation one that I wish everyone could witness.  Seeing 500 African American men earn their college degrees in a city that had such a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement is indescribable.  I felt so honored to sit between Myles’ grandmother and mother and feel their immense pride and joy as Myles Nicholson graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Computer Science. Understanding that almost 25 years ago Ms. Jackson was forced to leave Spelman after a successful freshman year of college because of financial constrains and knowing the tremendous sacrifices and life choices she has made so that her children would be able to earn their college degrees is such a testament to the power of a high-quality education.  Being able to witness a mother’s dream deferred became her son’s reality is what all of this work is about.  Myles, now a Morehouse Man, will continue his education as he pursues his PhD at Ohio State (after spending the summer working on our campus) and continuing to follow his passions and continue his mother’s strong legacy of strength, commitment and purpose.


Before Morehouse, I was able to travel to UPENN.  Sitting in the Franklin Field with Vice President Biden and Denzel Washington (his son was graduating), I was most amazed by Brooke, Chevon Boone’s 8 month old niece.  Brooke is the daughter of her older sister Stancheka, a student in my first class at Gaston Middle School 16 years ago.  Chevon has four siblings – all of whom I have now worked with – either at Gaston Middle School or on our campus.  Holding Brooke during Chevon’s graduation, it was so crystal clear the generational, transformational change that a high-quality education is causing in the Boone family (and so many of our families).  The first three Boones have now graduated from college: NC A&T, Morehouse College and now Chevon with a degree from UPENN.  Ebony and Shannon, her younger sisters, will soon follow.  For all five kids who struggled growing up in a single wide trailer in rural NC, their lives and the lives of their children, starting with Brooke will be so different.   Spending the day with Chevon, I was reminded so many times of how she just embodies our mission – she has succeeded at one of top universities in our country, she has continuously strengthened  our peanut field, the UPENN campus, the larger Philly community, and as a 2013 Teach for America Corp member, she will spread  her gifts to her own middle school students this fall.  Walking around UPENN with Chevon, I was struck over and over by the ways she has left a mark on her campus – whether it be with the dozens of younger students who found her to say thanks for being such a powerful mentor or the fact that she knew the cafeteria workers and security guards by name and stopped to thank them and hug them for adding such value to her four years. Two of the guards asked me to take a photo of them with Chevon and with tears in their eyes made it very clear that she was the only student in the 24 floor high rise that greeted them by name, asked about their day and found time to tutor anyone interested in improving their own education.  Chevon is amazing, but, I was most proud of the ways she has remained grounded, humble and grateful.

Graduating with Chevon was Katrese, another member of our founding class.  Katrese is so many ways has modeled growth, and while there are many stories that illustrate this, I’ll choose a seemingly “small” one.  One quick bit of context:  during her junior year in high school, Katrese and I had the opportunity to travel to India to visit schools and provide professional development to educators.  For both of us it was our first time in a developing country, and we had some struggles acclimating to a new environment.  While there were many challenges, Katrese’s biggest was trying new food, and I am not exaggerating when I say that she was sustained for almost 10 days with only ice-cream sundaes, which she could locate in almost every place we visited. J   Now, fast forward to 2013.  After her graduation, I took her out to lunch and asked her to pick the spot.  What did Katrese want?  Yep, Indian.   She quickly explained that the best Indian Restaurant was closed on Mondays so we would have to go her second favorite place.  J  Then later that night at the airport what did she choose?   Japanese. J  All of this from a kid who would only eat chicken fingers – even as a college freshman. J  While Katrese wouldn’t try my Sushi (YET), in so many ways, these “small” events represented so much about how college can change everything.  In fact, this once reluctant traveler spent her spring semester enrolled in African language classes so that she could spend time with one of her college friends in Ghana after college.


I could keep going because seeing the growth of our students over time is amazing in so many ways.  As a first generation college graduate I know how transformational the degree is, not just because of the diploma and not just because we can have the career of our choice, but because it changes everything about our world.  Having the opportunity to work with KIPP for the last 12 years and seeing the lives of our alum transform is beautiful.

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Be The Change & Teach at KIPP Houston Public Schools

My 3rd and 4th grade teacher, Ms. Schweickert, was one of my favorite teachers. She taught me how to take risks, be ok with learning difficult new concepts, and how school could be fun and not just demanding.

And as an adult, I continue to learn from many teachers and mentors. During my early days as a rookie teacher in Houston 21 years ago, I was blessed to meet Harriett Ball. Harriett had the gift of reaching both the hearts and minds of everyone in her classroom, instilling in all her students to believe in possibilities.

KIPP Houston Public Schools is looking for great teachers, like Harriett, who will be long-remembered by our students; teachers who believe individually that one person can make a difference in a child’s life and, collectively, great things can happen.

As an educator, I know first-hand that a great teacher matters more than class size, more than the curriculum, more than money, and more than circumstance. A great and caring teacher changed my life, and I saw great teachers change lives of the KIPPsters 20 years ago.

Since then, KIPP teachers have touched the lives of thousands of students across the U.S. In Houston, we’ve grown to 21 schools, embarking on a major expansion to create a powerful prekindergarten-through-college continuum of support and services for our children. We’re building new schools, adding more grade levels to existing schools, and have more students hungry to learn and become a part of our team and family. And we’re having fun along the way! Our newest school, KIPP Courage College Prep, opened its doors in 2012. KIPP Northeast High School is set to open in fall 2013, and we are positioned to open a new elementary and middle school in 2014 to put a dent in our 8,000-student waitlist.

We’re continually looking for talented, committed, and passionate teachers and leaders who are ready to teach, lead, and inspire students. We are looking for educators who believe that all children, no matter their background, can and will complete college, contribute to the global workforce, help make the world a better place, and become self-sufficient and happy. As Mahatma Gandhi observed, as a teacher at KIPP, you can “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I know it takes only one Harriett to make a difference in a child’s life! If you’re that great teacher or want to become that great teacher, I encourage you to join KIPP Houston Public Schools’ Team and Family by applying for a position with us. Visit

Teach, lead, and inspire at KIPP Houston Public Schools. :)

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