How a Personal Mission becomes Meaningful Action

The KIPP Federal Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C. places KIPPsters as interns on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and think tanks across the city. Access to these opportunities don’t often exist for low-income youth. KIPP and our partners are working to change that. 

The Fellowship has grown to include 10 KIPPsters, all of whom blew us away with their wisdom and maturity. Read the words of Shirin Vetry in her application essay about how her political awareness transforms her personal mission into meaningful action.

I have always joked that my life is the definition of international relations. With a Bolivian mother and an Iranian father, dinner at home was a fusion of differing foods with conversation rolling in and out of three different languages. Inevitably, our apartment chats became diplomat-like exchanges between the two opposing cultures. Once my father joined the military, this life of international relations expanded to include American foreign policy. International political decisions soon directly influenced my life and subsequently developed into a commitment to understanding and answering the bigger questions facing the American government both internationally and domestically.

Blending both the foreign and domestic, Washington, D.C. is the national and a world capital that inspires growth and change on the daily. If I could spend the summer interning in Washington, D.C., I would be able to work at the hub of political thought. Indeed, this internship opportunity would be my chance to explore my fields of interest: political science, law, and international relations. Living in the heart of political thought, I would be immersed in my passions.

While my dedication to politics drives my interest in working at nation’s political core, it is my resourcefulness, willingness to live and work outside of my comfort zone, and thoughtfulness that make me a great candidate. Going to boarding school, I was forced to be independent and search for my own opportunities. This resourcefulness was particularly useful when working and volunteering abroad.

Moreover, during my time interning abroad, my ability to push myself outside of my comfort zone enabled me to facilely approach people for interviews, travel to rural areas and spoke with people of all backgrounds, and consistently cold call for interviews and meetings. It is thus clear that there are no boundaries for my resourcefulness or comfort level. If given the chance to work in Washington DC, my passion would motivate me to do impactful work, and my resourcefulness and adaptability would assist me in accomplishing this goal.

In addition to these attributes, the most important aspect of my personality is my cultural awareness. As seen through recent marketing work done as publicity chair of one of my clubs, I have the ability to think outside of the box critically. Furthermore, my international background has forced me to consistently think of the bigger picture and consider the perspective of others when making decisions. That is, in having to maneuver two separate cultures my entire life, I have learned how to work in the context of multiculturalism. Therefore, I am certain that this awareness will help me transform the mission that drives me into meaningful action within one of the world’s political capitals.

For more words of wisdom from our KIPPsters on their paths to D.C., read Josue Coronado’s commitment to giving a Voice to the Voiceless and Thomaia Pamplin’s essay about Leveling the Playing Field in D.C.

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A Voice for the Voiceless

As I shared in my blog about Why I Advocate, our KIPPsters inspire me to fight daily for opportunities for ALL children. Our promise to each of them is sacred.

KIPP alum and Georgetown University student, Josue Coronado, is taking advantage of one such opportunity with the KIPP Federal Policy Fellowship Program in Washington, D.C. this summer. His application shows his passion for fixing a broken education system and his committing to making a difference. 

Our education system is broken. While most suburban, middle class students attend top schools, simply because they can afford them, lower income families are forced to fight amongst each other because of the limited spaces allotted for non-zoned “gifted” students in affluent public schools. The number of these bright, lower income students dwindles further as they are often victims of families plagued by ignorance: a state reflective not of their intelligence but their impoverishment. It is a cycle that continually oppresses low-income communities of the United States, subsequently subjugating them to a life of long days, manual labor, and hundreds of thousands of hours of work. Growing up in a predominantly low-income Latino community, I often saw my neighborhood plagued with the socioeconomic injustices stemming from a lack of resources. Education, or rather lack thereof, was one of them. Having received an education from KIPP Houston High School, and as I continue my studies at Georgetown University, I have made it my mission to reform education in America: a responsibility that ensures America’s constituents don’t have to relinquish what is arguably the most valuable commodity in the world, knowledge, because of their financial status.

My mother grew up in some of the poorest streets of Houston. Her mother, my grandmother, cleaned house after house, scrubbing floors on her knees to support her five children living in their two bedroom apartment in Houston. My father, like my grandmother, a Mexican immigrant, dropped out of the ninth grade to ease the financial constraints burdening my grandparents. He began working in the suburbs of the elite, landscaping with my grandfather, bringing in money to help put my tias tios through high school. Flash-forward to two decades later and their son becomes the first in his family to attend a four-year university: to go on to la UniversidadPero mira, this isn’t an accolade to be proud of but a problem that must fixed. Six older cousins, all graduates of high school, and they each laid their collegiate journals on the desk, never to be opened: never to be written in. This is the burden I carry, but it is not one that is in vain. I will tell how a Latino, son of immigrants, saw his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, his cousins, struggling to make ends meet, witnessed first-hand gang violence plaguing his community, and used it to give voices to those unheard.

But my story can’t stop at me. I want all underrepresented families to have their stories heard, to have their stories written not by someone else but by them themselves. However, first, they must have the opportunity, the access. Participating in this program allows me to take one more step in the right direction—one step closer to articulating the kind of barriers that KIPP students of color, and students of low-income families face. Congress and the White House must know, yes, there is beauty in our struggle, but even more beauty in our success.

If you enjoyed Josue’s wisdom, I urge you to read the essays of Thomaia and Shirin.

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Leveling the Playing Field in D.C.

In my work, I get to meet KIPPsters from all across the nation who are being the change we all wish to see in the world. They amaze me every day.

With this in mind, I wanted to share the words of a few KIPPsters who will be that change this summer in Washington, D.C. with the KIPP Federal Policy Fellowship Program. Thomaia Pamplin’s application essay shows how being called “underpriveleged” pushed her to seize every opportunity for her own advantage. 

Underprivileged. The first time I saw this word was in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers; he described KIPPsters as “underprivileged minorities.” I was confused and somewhat upset by this word. I had two parents who loved me, sisters I could depend on, food to eat every day, and a place to sleep; how was I underprivileged? Then I became a student at an elite New England boarding school, and I immediately found myself trying to pass as well connected or rich. I began to understand what Gladwell meant in his description of KIPPsters; compared to the children of lawmakers and their wealthy benefactors, I was underprivileged. Something clicked in me after this realization and I no longer felt as hesitant with unfamiliar opportunities. Because of that change in me, I’ve backpacked through the Teton Valley and spent a month studying education in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, India. I recognize a good opportunity when I see one, and this fellowship is a great one. It supports “underprivileged” students and gives us a chance to make a difference in a realm we have never had a say in before.

I would be an excellent candidate for this program because of the values KIPP has instilled in me. The KIPP adage, “All of Us Will Learn,” is an idea I try to embody in group settings. Most recently, I worked on a video project for a Theatre course with a group of three students. There was one freshman among us, who was the youngest and often sat to the side, not speaking. She was our appointed director, but seemed too nervous to direct. I came to her with questions and encouraged her to speak up. By the end of the project, she was an excellent director because group members listened and responded to her suggestions which boosted her confidence. I believe this same approach to collaboration would be useful on Capitol Hill. I recognize that an individual can perform well, but a team’s results can be even greater and more satisfying. Being a good listener, contributing, and encouraging are the foundation of “All of Us Will Learn” and critical for having a good group mentality.

Another essential outlook that I possess is represented through the KIPP phrase, “Be nice. Work hard.” The order of these statements changes from school to school, but I particularly liked the order my middle school chose. “Be nice. Work Hard.” is so important to me because it demonstrates that above all humanity and kindness matter more than individual ambition. Lawmakers have much responsibility because they decide the parameters of our lives. “Be nice. Work hard.” is a representation of putting service to your community before your own ambitions.

The opportunity to participate in this program and an internship in DC is more than a resume booster to me. Chances like these level the playing field for students like me. With the principles ingrained in me from KIPP, I believe I have the tools needed to succeed on Capitol Hill and serve my community. 

You may also enjoy reading the essays of her fellow KIPPsters and D.C. Fellows, Shirin Vetry and Josue Coronado

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The Loss of my Friend and Spiritual Brother: Shawn Hurwitz

It is with shock and sadness that I am mourning the loss of my friend, my mentor, and my spiritual brother, Shawn Hurwitz.

Shawn served as my confidant and partner as we launched KIPP in Houston two decades ago, and became a founding board member both for KIPP Houston and KIPP’s national organization.  Without Shawn’s faith in our mission and wise counsel, KIPP would never have grown to reach so many children in Houston and across the country, and served as a catalyst for so many other public schools to do similar transformative work. All told, hundreds of thousands of children have a new-found freedom to succeed in school and life because Shawn Hurwitz cleared a path.

Shawn was also one of my best friends.  I will miss his wisdom, sense of humor, and constant optimism.  My wife Colleen and I, along with the entire KIPP Team and Family, send our love and condolences to his wife Debbie, their two beautiful children, Ellie and Scott, his brother David, and his loving parents, Barbara and Charles.

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Why I Advocate

Please join us.

As we kick off the 2015-16 school year across Houston, I am reminded of an often unspoken, yet very sacred, promise made by schools and educators. Parents send their children through school doors and into classrooms each morning with high expectations. Parents believe that they have brought their children, their most prized gifts in this world, to the school to learn, grow, and have bright futures. Schools receive these students through the same school doors and into classrooms bearing the responsibility of opening the doors of Opportunity and Life. It is our moral imperative to develop in our students the academic skills, intellectual habits, and qualities of character necessary to succeed in school and the competitive world beyond.

All too often the system fails underserved children and their families. Yet sitting idly by and blaming the system will never accomplish anything. We believe that promises to children are sacred. We often remind legislators and leaders that we have been entrusted with parents’ greatest gifts, and because of that, we must protect them by advocating for greatness in every classroom. Teachers, leaders, families, and alumni must all do their part to step in and advocate for change so that our sacred promise to today’s children can be fulfilled, and that one day ALL children will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.  Any one of us has a quiet voice when it comes to advocacy.  Collectively, our voices are loud.

We have been making and keeping these promises for over 20 years to help ensure that teachers, parents, and students are set up for success. Please join the cause of so many education champions and advocate for today’s children.

You can start today by liking the KIPP Houston Advocacy Facebook and Twitter pages to stay up to date with information and opportunities to make your voice heard. Please join us.

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The Mentor who Shaped Me

In this LinkedIn series, professionals thank those who helped them reach where they are today. Please share my post on my mentor, Harriett Ball, from LinkedIn here. Use #ThankYourMentor and @mention your mentor when sharing.

Every once in a while, an extraordinary teacher comes along and changes everything. For me and my fellow KIPP co-founder, Dave Levin, that teacher was Harriett Ball. She was more than just a mentor to us: she was the kind of master teacher whose impact was felt well beyond her classroom walls. KIPP is here today because Harriett Ball taught us how to both teach well and find joy in the classroom.

In the fall of 1992, Dave was a struggling first-year teacher at Bastian Elementary in Houston, Texas. One day while walking the hallways, he heard a drumbeat echoing out of a colleague’s classroom door; it was students tapping out a rhythm while Harriett taught them their times tables. Standing at six foot one and commanding a classroom with a booming alto voice, Harriett was both respected and beloved by her students. She brought joy to the classroom by teaching math lessons to the tune of her students’ favorite songs.

Harriett changed the game for Dave the first time she stepped inside his classroom. After watching him awkwardly try to manage a difficult class, she said, “Dave, let me teach this lesson and you’ll see how it’s done.” In 30 minutes, she taught the kids more math than Dave had taught his students in weeks. By about minute two of that lesson, Dave decided he’d found his mentor.

At that time, I was also a first-year bilingual teacher in a nearby Houston school trying to find my way in the profession. When Dave came home to our shared apartment, he told me what had happened and that I needed to meet Harriett. The next time I had a professional development day, I headed down to Bastian to see what Dave was talking about. And just like him, I was in awe.

While Harriett was a master at hooking kids on learning though songs and mnemonic chants, her true strength was in something much more nuanced: mastering the art of building relationships with students. She could engage and relate to any kid — even the ones with the toughest exteriors would open up and show their fragility to her. Because Harriett earned their trust and love, they didn’t mind it when she held them accountable. Her lessons were fun and engaging, but they also pushed students to think critically about the principles behind what she was teaching them. We learned to love seeing the light bulb go off in children’s heads when they understood a challenging problem in her class.

Harriett soon agreed to take us under her wing, and she did not shy away from giving us honest feedback on our areas for improvement. She mentored us with an unflinching insistence that kids deserved the best when they came in for every lesson. When she saw one of us teaching something in a way that was not right, she would stop us right there in front of the kids, kindly coach us on how to teach it correctly, and have us reteach it on the spot. We were motivated to meet her high standard of excellence, which translated into our students wanting to do the same for us. Harriett’s focus on helping us improve and grow as teachers is something we took to heart when we became middle school leaders.

Inspired by Harriett’s example, Dave and I recruited 47 students in 1994 to become the inaugural class of KIPP. Even our name, KIPP – Knowledge Is Power Program – came from one of Harriett’s math chants. We drew heavily on her emphasis on building relationships with families, from visiting them in their homes to recruiting them to KIPP by making ourselves available via home phone or toll-free pay phone (it was last millennium) for after-school homework help.

Now, when we look to hire teachers and leaders, we ask: “How willing are you to get to know your kids both in and out of the classroom? Will you have high expectations and expect students to meet them, being the constant instead of the variable?” If a teacher’s heart is there, the sky is the limit for students.

Sadly, Harriett is no longer with us; she passed four years ago. But visit any KIPP classroom and you will see that her legacy lives on in our KIPP network, which now consists of 183 public charter schools educating 70,000 students nationwide in grades PreK-12 and 10,000 alumni who have gone on to college. You will see that there is rigor in the classroom, but there are also smiles on the students’ faces, smiles that only come from the joy of learning. That was Harriett’s ultimate gift to us, and to the KIPP students as well, who still benefit from her example and belief that ALL of us WILL learn.

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State of Education: Shrink the College Diploma Gap

In this recent LinkedIn series, professionals debated the state – and future – of their industry. Read and share my post on the State of Education directly from LinkedIn here

When it comes to beliefs and perceptions, public education in the U.S. has progressed since I started my career as an educator nearly 25 years ago. Back then, when a class of inner-city students in Los Angeles taught by Jaime Escalante achieved great results in AP Calculus, it was such a big deal that they made a movie out of it — “Stand and Deliver.” In the years since, we’ve realized that it is not a Hollywood movie script for classes – or schools – of children from low-income backgrounds to achieve at high levels. Today there are hundreds of public schools – both charter and district schools – where students from low-income families are proving that demography is not destiny.

Without putting on rose-colored glasses, we can celebrate the progress in public education. There has never been a greater amount of talent in the field of PreK-12 public education, with an influx of high achievers entering teaching and joining skilled veteran educators who have been in the field for decades. More students are graduating from high school than ever before, with a record graduation rate of 81 percent. We’re also seeing an increase in college matriculation, especially among students of color. In just under two decades, the rate of Hispanic students enrolling in college has tripled.

There is still, of course, much more we all need to do, fix, and accomplish. Too many children remain in schools where they are not able to meet their full potential. On an international scale, U.S. students’ proficiency in math and reading has fallen: the U.S. currently ranks below average in math among the world’s most developed countries, and we are two spots behind Russia in overall math and reading results.

An equally alarming but lesser-known red flag in American education today is the fact that more students get to college, but fewer are getting through college to earn their degrees. Only about a third of Americans have earned a four-year college degree by their late 20s. For young people growing up in poverty, the graduation rate drops to 9 percent. While the increasingly high price-tag of college no doubt has prohibited many young people from pursuing or completing a degree, it is not the only contributing factor. Some colleges and universities do better than others in retaining their low income students, indicating that money is not the sole barrier. Likewise, some PreK-12 school systems do better in preparing their kids for the academic and life challenges of college. We need to understand why.

At KIPP, the four-year college graduation rates for all KIPP middle school completers 10 years later is 45 percent, which is more than four times the rate of their low-income peers. These numbers do not satisfy us; rather, they show us what is possible. We are aspiring for a college completion rate of 75 percent, which is the graduation rate for kids living in the highest economic quartile.

Though there are struggles, we need to keep raising the bar. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I believe we are ready to handle the increase in international competition and shifting demands from the U.S. economy, the increase in higher education costs, and the crippling gap between rich and poor. In my view, traditional public school educators today are working within a K-12 mindset, when they could be viewing public education as a PreK-16 system that propels students to succeed in college and in life. With that end in mind, KIPP has formed partnerships with more than 70 colleges and universities aimed at increasing college completion rates for low-income students. By working together, college and public school educators can put in place the kinds of supports and systems that make a real difference.

In higher education, there are a number of universities that are blazing a trail when it comes to graduation rates for first generation college students. Ouachita Baptist University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Franklin & Marshall are among a growing number of colleges and universities that have created peer support programs aimed at easing the transition to college for first generation students. These schools are establishing an impressive track record of retaining and graduating all of their students, no matter their income-level.

We have made important progress in the past 25 years, but during those same years, the goal posts have moved down the field. It is no longer enough to measure success by the percent of kids passing an 8th grade reading test or earning a high school diploma. Rather, the challenge of our day is for leaders in PreK-12 and higher education to work together to shrink the college-diploma gap between rich and poor. When that happens, we truly will have reason to celebrate.

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In-State Tuition for Texas’ Children

In Texas, our legislature meets every other year, and 2015 is a particularly critical year for Texas’ children. Beyond the invaluable proposed education-focused and charter-specific legislation that we have seen filed, a recent bill (SB 1819) was filed in the Senate to eliminate something dear to my heart—in-state college tuition for undocumented students who have attended Texas high schools.

It is important to understand that Texas was the first state to offer in-state tuition for ALL of our children, and we did this back in 2001.

For many of you, I don’t have to explain why this opportunity is critical to KIPPsters. Our students work very hard in their climbs up the mountain to and through college, often overcoming challenges that would sway others. We applaud their grit and ganas every step of the way.

I cannot tell you enough about how proud I am of ALL the KIPPsters who have committed to working hard and building a better tomorrow. When we sat in their homes, across from their parents, we made a promise, a sacred promise, to do everything we could to help them achieve their goals and dreams. As Big KIPPsters, we like to say “be the constant, not the variable.” It is our responsibility to eliminate the variables in our students’ lives so that working hard and being nice can open doors of opportunity for them. Our state should be the constant as well.

This proposed bill is not only bad for children across Texas, it is bad for our state’s economic future. If we cannot assure all of our children that education is the path to opportunity and success, then from where will the next generation of workers, leaders, and community voices come?

In the coming weeks, I may share opportunities for you to reach out to your representatives and share your thoughts on this topic and legislation.

Promises to children are sacred.

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How to Quit and Stay Committed

What happens when you are committed to a mission, but decide to leave your job? How can you still maintain a level of integrity and commitment as you walk away? Leaving a job well can be a valuable strength to have as a professional, although it’s not easy; the act of leaving and the value of commitment don’t seem to fit naturally together. I’ve seen it done, though, and learned firsthand what it takes to leave well and stay committed.

Although my role has changed over time, I’ve worked in public education for most of my career. Twenty one years ago in Houston, I co-founded KIPP, a network of 162 public charter schools across the country. The reason we’ve been around for so long is simple: we are committed to our mission of helping students from underserved families develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in college and in life.

Over the years, however, I have experienced plenty of colleagues leaving their positions. Whenever someone surprises me with immediate plans to quit, I always offer to have a conversation with them to ensure that they are making the right decision.

Being a committed person does not have to mean that you are tied to the same job or organization for the rest of your life. For some, quitting a job may be just the beginning of a personal journey to discover their true passion or calling in life. There is a way to remain a committed person and leave your current job. How, when, and to whom you communicate your plans to quit will lead to one of two situations — leaving well and on good terms with your former employer, or leaving in a horrible mess and burning a bridge. Here’s how to leave well:

Tell the right person. When you are leaving a job, the top priority person to tell is not your colleagues, but your direct supervisor. This is especially important when you work in a field like education and are accountable to young people. The prospect of telling your boss you are leaving can be intimidating, but you could have a much more difficult conversation with a potential employer in the future if they call your past supervisor for a reference. More often than not, though, a boss will respect the straight-talk and the amount of respect earned by you will only rise.

How you communicate is key. If you are able to have a difficult conversation that is both honest and respectful, you’ve gained trust. You’ve also endeared yourself to your superiors by demonstrating good character traits and values. In turn, this will put you in a stronger position as you look to gain the trust of a future employer. When I was principal of a KIPP middle school, one of my best teachers decided to leave after one year, and it was difficult to see her go. But because she was able to communicate her decision in a way that made sense and was respectful, it strengthened my impression of her. Six years later, she applied for a fellowship to start a new KIPP school in another city. I was a part of the selection committee. I chose her both because of her ability as an educator and how she handled her departure.

Timing is everything. Giving two weeks’ notice is setting the bar low, considering how long it takes most employers to hire someone new. The earlier you tell your employer you are leaving, the better chance they have to find a suitable replacement. If you give several months’ notice, you may even become a part of the hiring process. Some years ago, one of our school principals had a family commitment that led her to move out of state. She gave us more than an entire year to plan her replacement, and in doing so was able to play a hand at picking her successor, leaving a legacy of trust and stewardship behind.

It is never easy to leave a job, especially when you are committed to the mission. If done well, you can leave an organization in a way that demonstrates respect — for your colleagues, your superiors, and/or to your mission. You may also leave a lasting impression to carry you through to your next opportunity. As KIPPsters like to say, leave a place better than you found it.

Read more from this LinkedIn series as professionals share all the right — and wrong — ways to leave a job. Follow the stories here.

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KIPP Northeast College Prep goes to Harvard Business School

This is one of the more fun blogs I’ve had the honor to write, and it’s dedicated to all of us who are or have been teachers. Teachers tend to never fully be satisfied in the moment that their students are completely learning what they’re teaching…and then there are those beautiful moments when it all comes together. Ms. Xu at KIPP Northeast College Prep, we had such a moment with your student, Kaylor Washington, this week.

Kaylor is a 10th grader with Ms. Xu at KIPP Northeast College Prep, and she and two other high school KIPPsters were with me at Harvard Business School, listening to the KIPP case study and getting a chance to weigh in as well. (Kaylor and her two teammates, Carlos Amaya and Tevin Foster, earned this trip with me because they were nominated by their school leaders as having loads of GANAS, aka hearts of lions!!). Kaylor was raised in New Orleans and came to Houston with her family following Hurricane Katrina. She first came to KIPP Voyage Academy for Girls in 5th grade and is now in her 6th year with us at our Northeast Houston high school on the same campus. After class, we sat down with Professor Kim and several of his students to dig further into the case. The HBS students asked the KIPPsters what they thought of the case, the debates in class, and the case’s ultimate question: should KIPP continue to grow?  The following is Kaylor’s answer, which I asked her to repeat later in the day so I could make sure I wrote it down in her own words:

“As the MBA students were debating the case with the question if KIPP should continue to grow, I was thinking about my AP Biology teacher, Ms. Xu, and what she taught us about exponential and logistical growth. She taught us that when a community first starts, there are no resource limits so the population grows without limits. There comes a time, however, when the population reaches its resource max, and once that happens, the population stabilizes with minor fluctuations. Some of the students today were saying KIPP couldn’t grow because we didn’t have enough space, money, teachers, and other resources. But one resource they failed to interpret was Hope. There are no limitations to Hope because whenever you have the mindset that you can do something and it’s possible, then anything can happen.  Another concept is ΔN/ΔT.  In English this means change over time. If we look at KIPP’s history, there has been a great amount of change in a relatively small amount of time. Because the change is so great, the only resource that should be a determining factor is the drive to increase the change over time. So, KIPP should be able to expand.”

And there you have it :) .  Congrats Gillian, Crystal, Tasha, and the faculty of KIPP Voyage and KIPP Northeast College Prep for being the constant, not the variable, with Kaylor over the past 5.5 years, so when she was in a room with Harvard Business School students, Kaylor stood, Kaylor delivered, and Kaylor most definitely had the final definitive word :) :) :) .  And congrats as well to all of our teachers who teach tens of thousands of Kaylor’s, and despite any doubts you have as you drive home today:  it’s working :) .

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