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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 :) .

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Discovering the Share Fair Nation STEMosphere

Please enjoy this guest blog from Minaz Fazal, our Manager of Innovation in Digital Teaching and Learning. What does it look like when kids and teachers explore learning? 

As an educator, every once in a while you experience an educational “aha” moment. All the best verbs of learning collide at once—exploring, thinking, conceptualizing, growing, challenging, testing, hypothesizing…and just authentic kinesthetic experiences—into one large bang.

And as a 15-year veteran of education, this happened for me last Saturday. Thirty students, 30 teachers, and 4 school leaders from the KIPP Houston Team & Family happily stepped into an educational Disneyland.

The Share Fair Nation STEMosphere re-inspired me to make sure kids “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” as Ms. Frizzle of the Magic School Bus taught all of us. Much of the best learning happens when your hands are dirty. Kids reimagined towers and bridges, designed ceramic tiles, practiced CPR on an ambulance, explored 3D printing, drove robotic vehicles, tested out the flight simulator, and stargazed in the Planetarium…all at Ridge Point High School in Fort Bend ISD.

And the teachers honed their craft also, exploring flipped instruction, Chromebook apps, Khan Academy, and Augmented Reality. Based on these experiences, the buzz continued as they talked about integrating more discovery-based learning in the classroom, planning a school-wide STEM Day, flipping their classrooms, and using tools like Google Apps for Education and Khan Academy progress trackers.

Even our school leaders felt like the day reset their educational mindsets. Susan Shenker, KIPP Intrepid Preparatory’s School Leader noted, “Kids need time in the instructional day for exploratory learning and to show their skills.” She said she  spent the rest of the weekend brainstorming how to add a new level of creative problem solving and exploration into the school.

When I asked one of the students what she would tell her teammates who didn’t get to join us, she quickly quipped, “You really missed out.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Importance of Character in Schools

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the value and role of character education in schools on LinkedIn. Read more here and below. If my thoughts resonate with your experiences, feel free to share it through LinkedIn.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, writer Anna North asked if character, or what she calls “personality,” should be taught in schools. She sets up character and academics as an either-or proposition, but I know from 20 years of working in K-12 education that it’s not. At KIPP, the public charter school network that I co-founded with Dave Levin in 1994, character-building and academics go hand-in-hand. We believe our students need both rigorous academics and a strong character foundation to excel in college and in life.

Character has been woven into the fabric of the KIPP model from the very beginning – we observed and learned from master teachers that character is part of any successful classroom. KIPP educators integrate character strengths like grit, self-control, and social intelligence into the classroom and the entire school culture as tools to empower students to succeed. These strengths have been identified by leading psychologists Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania as key indicators of student success and happiness.

We’ve seen that parents want their students to learn more than just academic knowledge in school. The typical parent of a KIPP student spends a great deal of time outside of the classroom working for the betterment of his/her children, helping them grow the character strengths they need to succeed in life. As educators, we believe that this character development work should be woven seamlessly into the classroom and parents and teachers are partners in this effort. While KIPP’s character development is grounded in psychology, this work is not a psychology experiment. It’s geared toward real life. We firmly believe that empowering students not to give up and to work with a team will prepare them for college, life, and a choice-driven future; a future that includes college and preparation for a working world that values strong character and judgment.

We’ve heard the argument that KIPP’s approach to teaching character is devoid of any morality. To that, I say: our motto is “Work Hard. Be Nice,” not “Work Hard. Work Harder.” Each day I see teachers and students working together, displaying and developing these character strengths as they work to better understand them both in and out of the classroom. Ms. North’s column quotes KIPP NYC teacher Leyla Bravo-Willey, who recently wrote in a New Republic op-ed, “When I talk to my students about character, it’s not abstract. It’s personal…I’m always conscious that I’m leading by example, showing them what grit and optimism look like in real life.” Leyla, like many teachers across the KIPP network, is modeling strong character for students and leading by example. As James Baldwin so poignantly said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them.”

Preparing our students to climb the mountain to and through college to have options in life is our main goal, but it’s not our only goal. Many of our students are not only climbing the mountain to and through college, but they’re reaching back down as well to help future generations of students. We’re seeing that most vividly in KIPP classrooms, where our alumni are coming back to teach the next generation. At KIPP in Houston, where our work all started and we have students old enough to have completed college nearly a decade ago, 5 percent of our teachers are former KIPP students.

When I think of how we hope KIPP’s character development plays out in the future, I think of KIPP Houston first grade teacher Diana Castillo. Diana and her family emigrated from Mexico when she was just three years-old and struggled to make ends meet for years. Flash forward to 1997. I was in Houston, recruiting students and parents to grow the first KIPP school in the country. Diana’s door was one of the ones on which I knocked. I promised Diana and her family that she could make it to and through college by working hard and being nice. Diana took me up on that promise, joining us as a student at KIPP, and then working her way to Cornell University before joining Teach for America. Today, she teaches first grade at KIPP Dream Prep in Houston.

Last year, she was awarded a Kinder Foundation Excellence in Teaching Award in recognition of her outstanding work as a teacher. She not only models the KIPP character strengths of grit, zest, optimism, and gratitude, but she is working to help a new generation of KIPPsters develop those same strengths so that they can follow in her footsteps to college and the world beyond.

Character development is not a novelty or a trend—it’s a real-world need that has always been in high demand. Students demand it, parents demand it, and the workplace demands it. Asking whether character should be taught in school or at home sets up a false choice. We need to think about how schools and families can work together to ensure young people have resiliency to reach their potential in their chosen careers with a generosity of spirit to help build a better tomorrow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment