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'We Don't Want Your Money'

Monday, April 6, 2009

How two entrepreneurial educators created the most successful schools in the country.

Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, cofounders of what has become the most highly regarded and closely watched charter school network in America, insist they were brought together by little more than basketball and beer. Assigned to the same dormitory at the 1992 Teach For America summer training institute in Los Angeles, the two six-foot-three twentysomethings, just graduated from college, gravitated toward the pickup games at the California State University, Northridge courts, and the parties that followed.  

There was, of course, more to it than that. Their Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) has grown in eight years from two middle schools in Houston and New York to 66 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Eighty percent of the 16,000 students are low-income and 90 percent are African-American or Latino. Almost all of the KIPP schools have had significant gains in achievement, just like the original two, despite the fact that Feinberg and Levin—having taken the role of KIPP regional superintendents—no longer run them directly.

It is in many ways a triumph of improvisation. The cofounders say they learned the most from their mistakes. They embraced chaos. They enjoyed solving their problems on the run. They bonded over their mutual fondness for putting themselves into situations for which they were ill-prepared.

One night during their training institute at Cal State Northridge, their dorm ran out of beer. Feinberg heard one thirsty trainee say that she had a car but did not want to drive to a liquor store that late. He decided to impress the young woman by chivalrously volunteering to take her keys and do the errand for her. He invited Levin along.

 “You know how to drive a stick shift?” he asked Levin.

 “No.”

 “Well, that’s okay. I got it.”

In the car, Feinberg turned the key and listened with satisfaction as the engine roared to life. Then he turned to his new friend and said, “You know, I really don’t know how to drive a stick either.” Levin smiled. This was his kind of guy. They set off anyway, the gears grinding and stalling, grinding and stalling as they lurched down Reseda Boulevard.

Since then, chutzpah has been their prime management technique. Whatever half-baked idea they had, they ran with. They put their KIPP proposal together within a few hours of being inspired by Rafe Esquith, an award-winning elementary school teacher from Los Angeles whose speech in Houston the two young teachers almost missed because they were too tired and disheartened by their failures in the classroom.

It was quite a speech, with demonstrations by two of Esquith’s students. During the drive home, Levin and Feinberg could not stop replaying what they had heard and seen. They did not see problems anymore, only opportunities. Although it was amazing what Esquith had accomplished, it was not magic, he had convinced them. They could not think of anything but what they had to do to get themselves to where Esquith was.

Eighty percent of the 16,000 KIPP students are low-income and 90 percent are black or Hispanic.

When they got home, as exhausted as they were, they did not want to sleep. They booted up Feinberg’s Macintosh. They put U2’s “Achtung Baby” on repeat play and began typing up their new plan. What should they call it? Names, they thought, were important. If they had a name, they could put it over the classroom door. They could put it on T-shirts. They could use it as the title of the proposal they would present to the principal, so she could see how brilliant they were and give them all the support they needed.

They decided to call it the Knowledge Is Power Program after a chant composed by their friend and mentor Harriett Ball. She was a classroom genius at Levin’s school in Houston. The chant was called “Read, Baby, Read.” Her students loved it. Its passion, optimism, and worldliness were infectious.  

     “You gotta read, baby, read.
     You gotta read, baby, read.
     The more you read, the more you know,
     ‘Cause knowledge is power,
     Power is money
     and I want it.”

By Christmas of 1993 their proposal for a fifth-grade KIPP class was in what they considered acceptable shape. Now they had to decide if they were serious about it. Were they really going to do this? Their two-year Teach For America obligation would be over in June. Were they going to stay in Houston a third year? First they needed to persuade Feinberg’s principal, Adriana Verdin-Castro, to let them do it at her school, Garcia Elementary.

Feinberg was not sure how she would react to the idea. He handed her the 27-page KIPP proposal. “We want to teach a large class of fifth graders,” Feinberg said. “We want to put them all in one room.”

“How many?” she asked.

 “About forty-five,” he said.

 “And what is your goal?”

 “We want to get them ready for the magnet middle schools.” The magnet schools had higher standards than the regular middle schools.

 “Well, Mr. Feinberg,” she said. “This seems very interesting.” She promised to give him a more detailed reaction once she had time to read and think about their proposal. Days passed. She kept putting him off. Finally, after many reminders, she told him she had some feedback for him.

Inspired, the teachers did not see problems anymore, only opportunities.

 “That’s great, Ms. Verdin. What do you think?”

“I think the font you chose to print the proposal is too small. It is too hard to read. You should make the font bigger. But you are going to need district approval for this.”

It was difficult to tell from her tone what she thought of the idea, but she had not vetoed it. She was happy to bring Levin to Garcia. Team player or not, Feinberg was to her mind an effective young teacher. She assumed his friend would have some of the same talent. Also, being a brand new school, Garcia needed some recognition. She thought an innovation like KIPP would help.

As Verdin said, they had to get approval from the Houston Independent School District. Feinberg and Levin put on their best suits and headed for the Taj Mahal, the mocking nickname given the forbidding pile of gray concrete that was the district headquarters on Richmond Avenue, near Wesleyan Street. It looked like something designed by Joseph Stalin rather than by a mournful Indian prince. It was not a welcoming place.

In the first year they doubled the number of students passing the state tests.

They submitted their proposal to the office in charge of grants. That was the place to start because they wanted to raise money for the lunches they would give students during KIPP’s Saturday sessions. There was also the expense of the special outings and trips, which they called the joy factor. Children being asked to work so hard needed something to look forward to. They planned Esquith-like excursions to museums, theaters, and theme parks in Houston, and a weeklong end-of-the-school year trip to Washington, D.C. They would raise the money themselves, but they needed the school district’s blessing to apply for such grants.

One inconclusive meeting followed the next. Levin and Feinberg struggled to explain an idea that did not fit in the usual spaces on district forms. It was very much like driving the car that kept falling out of gear, but they were not going to give up.

 “This KIPP plan, it’s going to be ed reform, right?” a district official said.

 “Well, sure it’s ed reform.”

 “So what new curriculum are you using?”

 “Well, you know, there isn’t going to be any new curriculum. You have lots of smart people here in the district who have written a good curriculum. We just want to make sure the kids learn it.”

The official squinted at them. “Well, if there is no new curriculum, how is this ed reform?”

“Well, we plan to have the kids come in at 7:30 in the morning.”

 “Okay, we understand. You’re doing a before-school program.”

 “Uh, no. We are keeping the kids until five o’clock in the afternoon.”

 “So it’s an after-school program?”

 “We’re just lengthening the school day.”

 “You know we don’t have a budget for such a program.”

 “We don’t want your money. We don’t need district money. If we need some money, we’ll raise it ourselves.”

They were getting nowhere. They asked Esquith how to deal with administrators. He said if the bureaucrats were friendly, be polite.

“But what if they get in the way?” Feinberg asked.

“Work around them, do it anyway,” Esquith said. Obstructionist administrators were no better than furniture, he said, and should be treated as such.

Eventually they were ushered into the office of Susan Sclafani, chief deputy to Houston school superintendent Rod Paige. She was cool in demeanor, but listened respectfully. They were Teach For America corps members, which she liked. She had helped bring TFA to Houston. “If you can find the kids, you can do this,” she said. They were on their way.

The first year went well. They doubled the number of students passing the state tests. But they were denied permission to expand the program at Garcia. They explored every other alternative, improvising frantically. Suddenly, two school opportunities, not one, materialized, and so they started two schools, Feinberg’s in Houston and Levin’s in the South Bronx. Both admitted they had little idea how to expand their original fifth-grade concept into full-fledged fifth-through-eighth grade middle schools. They would try whatever made sense to them and see what happened.

They required summer school, regularly visited students’ homes, and organized field trips, music, sports, and jokes.

Often, the results were a mess. Feinberg was reprimanded for giving the office phone numbers of 20 Houston school administrators to his students so they could call and complain about the district’s failure to find more space for KIPP. Levin was yelled at regularly by the principal of the building where he tried to expand his New York program. He was eventually so discouraged he told Feinberg he was quitting and coming back to Houston to help his friend with his own mushrooming crises. Then, ashamed of himself, he changed his mind and forged ahead in the Bronx. 

They created a nine-and-a-half hour school day and frequent Saturday sessions. They required summer school. They regularly visited students’ homes. They told students to call them at their apartment if they had homework questions. They organized field trips, music, sports, and jokes. Some ideas worked and some did not. By 1999 they had two schools that were doing so well that the media had begun to notice. They wondered what to do next.

Then they met Stacey Boyd and her husband Scott Hamilton, who led them into something much bigger than they had bargained for.

As he considered the KIPP plan, it dawned on him that schools were a business.

Boyd and Hamilton were educational entrepreneurs with experience starting and monitoring charter schools. Feinberg and Levin met them in 1999. Boyd had started a new company, Project Achieve, that was developing a way to assess the progress of every child in a classroom. Hamilton was working for two of the richest people in the country, Don and Doris Fisher, founders of Gap clothing. They wanted him to find education projects where money from their new Don & Doris Fisher Foundation could make a difference.

Hamilton heard about KIPP from Boyd, who had persuaded Feinberg to try out her Achieve system in Houston. Hamilton went to Texas himself and observed Feinberg at full speed. In New York he got a dose of Levin’s wily charm.

He still had to persuade two members of a very different generation, Don, 71, and Doris, 68, to give a large chunk of their money to these kids. He took the couple to see Levin’s school, starting the tour in the portion of the building occupied by a regular public school, the one whose principal often yelled at Levin. They could contrast the noise and disorder with the quiet intensity of KIPP’s fourth-floor sanctum.

Hamilton spent several weeks writing and rewriting a business plan. It was going to cost at least $15 million. He did not think the Fishers were going to react very well. It was a start-up, and it wasn’t going to be a certain success. He sent one copy of the business plan to each of the Fishers. Despite his apprehensions, they loved the idea.

Don said he had never thought of running schools in the same way he ran a company. But as he considered the KIPP plan, it dawned on him that schools were a business, and charter schools in particular were a business. They needed principals who were trained in management fundamentals and could make their own decisions. He wanted to get going right away. He welcomed Feinberg and Levin to a meeting at his office overlooking San Francisco Bay.

“So Mike and Dave, you’re really thinking you can pull this off, huh?”

“Well, Mr. Fisher, I don’t know,” Levin said, “but we’d be more than happy to use your money to find out.”

It was eventually decided that Feinberg, with his wife Colleen Dippel, would move to San Francisco to be the chief executive officer of the new KIPP Foundation. Feinberg told friends, including Levin, that Levin the devout New Yorker would be content to raise enough money to fully endow his school, sign an agreement that would guarantee KIPP New York enough space for the next 100 years, keep teaching fifth-grade math, and be as happy as a pig in a barnyard.

Feinberg moved west and discovered that Don Fisher was even more impatient than he and Hamilton were. Laura D’Andrea Tyson, the former chief economic advisor to President Clinton and the dean of the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, quickly said yes when Fisher, chair of her school’s board, asked if she could provide space and faculty experts for the business training part of what they were going to call the Fisher Fellowship leadership course. Feinberg, Hamilton, and Levin were pleased that Tyson, unlike other business school deans they contacted, did not suggest they involve education school faculty in the project. All three of them distrusted education schools. Feinberg and Levin planned to do most of their recruiting among Teach For America veterans like themselves. They thought such people would have the most drive and imagination, and the most experience improvising in difficult circumstances.

But it seemed to Hamilton that they were rushing it. The original plan was to start that summer. The principals in training would take classes at Haas for two months while they completed the paperwork that would launch their schools. In the fall they would work at one or both of the KIPP schools. By the new year they would be in the cities they had chosen for their schools, recruiting teachers and students and finding a space for 70 to 80 fifth graders in the summer of 2001. Like Levin and Feinberg, they would add a new grade every year until they had fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools of about 300 students.

They planned to do most of their recruiting among Teach For America veterans: such people would have the most drive and imagination.

It was already May. Hamilton felt they did not have enough time. Hamilton went to see Don Fisher. “We’ve got to pull the plug,” he said. “We’ve got to take a breath and then do all this next year so we have time to plan it and do it well. I think we are just throwing stuff together here too fast.”

Fisher smiled. Hamilton, Feinberg, and Levin had no business training. He figured they would make mistakes. He explained to Hamilton, based on a half-century of experience, that it was much better to get started and address problems as they came up, rather than sit at a desk and try to plan for everything that could go wrong.

“Let’s keep throwing stuff together,” he said. “You are going to learn more by just getting started than you are going to learn over the next year studying this. Even if it is imperfect, I promise you it will be better this way.”

It was just what Feinberg and Levin wanted to hear. One of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs was telling them he liked to charge into new projects too, even if he was not ready.

Eight years later, they are still working that way. The preliminary results seem good. A sample of somewhat more than one thousand eighth graders who had been at KIPP schools for four years went from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

But Levin and Feinberg, tired of running KIPP in San Francisco and back in Houston, said they were not very impressed. They still had many problems. Some children could not adjust to the long school day and high standards and went back to their regular schools. Young teachers could handle the long hours, but they wanted to create a system where mid-career educators could also prosper.

They were creating more schools in Houston and New York. Some people said they were moving too fast, jumping in before details were decided, before they knew if they could recruit enough teachers and train enough of the principals whose skill and persistence would decide if the schools succeeded. The rush seemed to please them.

Feinberg reminisced about their first year of KIPP at Garcia. “We were building the plane as we flew it, and we didn’t really know what was in store for us.” To them, as ever, it sounded like a plan. They were going to keep doing it that way.  

Jay Mathews is education columnist for The Washington Post and author of Work Hard, Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.

FURTHER READING: Frederick M. Hess writes for The American about the future of vouchers and school choice in “After Milwaukee.” On April 6, 2009, the American Enterprise Institute is hosting an event on charter school growth featuring Mike Feinberg of KIPP Academies.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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