This year’s big idea: sticking with what works

This article was originally posted on June 20, 2016 on Mike Feinberg’s LinkedIn Account. Click here to read the original post.

Psychology professor Angela Duckworth’s new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, makes the case that ‘grit’ is the defining character trait of those who are successful in life. Duckworth defines grit as passion + persistence towards a goal over a long period of time. Those new to her work may consider Duckworth’s ideas on grit novel.

But at KIPP, the public charter school network that I co-founded with Dave Levin in 1994, grit is not a new, “big idea.” It’s a trait that has defined KIPP from the beginning, and has been around far longer than KIPP’s 22-year history. Although it’s been called lots of different names (mettle or tenacity to name a few), parents have worked to teach their children grit since the beginning of time.

Just like Duckworth explains in her book, KIPP teachers know that helping kids discover grit and other character strengths can lead to success. By staying “gritty,” and keeping our commitment to children, KIPP sees results: 45 percent of our students are earning a four-year college degree, a rate that is roughly four times the rate of students from similar economic backgrounds.

Today, KIPP is growing to serve nearly 70,000 students in 183 schools across the country [and 200 schools with 80,000 students in 2016-17] and is creating a culture of achievement and responsibility under the motto: “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

Along with a focus on academic achievement, KIPP schools also help students discover the power of ‘purpose,’ which Dr. Duckworth describes as the desire to help other people. That’s why over 100 KIPP alumni in 20 states are choosing to return to our schools as KIPP teachers, staff members, and more– including two members of our 1994 founding class at KIPP Houston.

Duckworth’s research around grit backs up what both KIPP schools and parents already know: kids need help developing their ‘muscle memory’ around character strengths like grit. To be sure, many children growing up in poverty have a lot of grit already. What teachers can do is foster a learning environment where students can understand the character strengths they possess, and use them to persevere through challenges.

KIPP teachers like Leyla Bravo-Willey at KIPP Infinity Middle School in NYC use a ‘lead by example’ approach to teaching character. In The New Republic, Leyla explains how she inspired her students by sharing her story of growing up in Miami as an immigrant from Nicaragua, earning a degree from Harvard University, and embarking on a career in education to help other students live their dreams.

When it comes to our organizational goals, KIPP is about as ‘gritty’ as it gets, sticking to a few key ideas for over 20 years to produce results that prove what is possible for undeserved students.

But KIPP and other high quality charter schools can’t do it alone. That’s why last year’s big idea, “Stop arguing, and start collaborating,” will continue to be a focus for KIPP. To scale our impact and help all students reach their full potential, we need to partner with local public school districts in new and intentional ways.

Our commitment to collaboration is paying off. In rural Arkansas, KIPP Delta has extended its KIPP Through College (KTC) program to include students in two neighboring district schools: Central High in Helena-West Helena and Lee High in Marianna. This partnership means that students at Central and Lee receive support from KIPP college advisors to navigate process of applying to college, from writing essays, to visiting campuses, to figuring out financial aid.

As a result, we doubled the 4-year college going rate the first year of the partnership at Central High School; we increased the four-year college going rate at Lee High by 40%.

And in Texas, where KIPP was founded, district and charter schools are working more closely than ever. Houston’s Spring Branch Independent School District partnered with KIPP and another outstanding charter school group, YES Prep, to form the SKY Partnership, which unites teachers at both charter and traditional schools to share resources and classroom practice ideas.

Now, students and families have greater educational options, and teachers in district and charter schools are able to learn from, and collaborate with, one another.

After 22 years of “Work Hard. Be Nice,” KIPP doesn’t have all the answers, but we do have some big ideas about what works for kids. And we’ve got the grit to stick to our commitment to help all students succeed in both college and in life. After all, promises to children are sacred.


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