Deborah Kenny, CEO of the Harlem Village Academies, is frustrated with the nation’s current education system. Unlike most, though, she decided to do something about it. Part manifesto, part memoir, her book Born to Rise chronicles her journey toward creating and running her own system of progressive charter schools in Harlem in New York City. She talked with us about the challenges of running a school, the problem with public schools, and how the charter movement is changing how people look at education.
What is your educational philosophy?
We want our students to receive the same high-quality education as students who are privileged to attend the best private schools in the country, whether it be Sidwell Friends or Fieldston Ethical Culture. Personally, I believe a progressive education is superior as long as it’s delivered by really smart, talented teachers who know how to execute well. It’s a sophisticated approach that really only works well in the hands of a really sophisticated educator. We’re dealing with a little bit of a challenge because students enter this school from the regular public system. And when they enter in fifth grade, they’re not yet proficient in the basics—reading, writing, and math—which means that we have to catch them up on basic math skills, on the basics of writing. And many of them come in at a kindergarten-, first-, second-grade level in reading. So we have to accelerate their mastery of the basics, but we reject the idea that if you do that you can’t teach that at a high level. We push ourselves constantly to think about how we can make sure that our students will catch up while we teach at the highest possible level. It means asking difficult, nuanced questions, not accepting an answer that is not backed up by evidence, the kinds of things that you would expect to see in the best private schools. We aim for a high level in rich discussions where the students are asked to analyze a challenging text and where the teacher does not get accept just any answer simply because the student is behaving. That’s not acceptable. We really push our kids to think for themselves, but in order to do that, in order to achieve that level of critical thinking, a child has to have mastery of the basics. So our challenge is to do both at the same time.
Where did you get the idea to open a charter school on your own?
Originally, I heard about charter schools from Chris Whittle, who was running something called Edison Schools. That’s how I heard about it. But the early chapters of the book describe the whole reason why I started the schools.
What makes the Harlem Village Academies different?
First of all, I have to say what we have in common with other charter schools because we have learned so much from them: creating an expectation that all students will attend college, naming classrooms after colleges, the longer school day, the longer school year. There’s so much that we’ve learned from other charter schools like KIPP and Achievement First and Uncommon. I feel it’s important to give credit where credit is due because I learned from them. In those early years when I opened the school, most of these other schools had been around for seven years, ten years, some of them even longer. They had been doing it, and I learned from them.
As far as what makes us different, I’ll tell you what the teachers say: teachers tell us that the level of professionalism and passion for teaching at a high level and teaching above the test, not to the test, and working in an environment where everybody is trusted to do their job and continually learning—there’s this incredible culture of learning. There’s this incredible workplace culture where the adults are continually becoming better and learning more about how to become a better teacher. The teachers get to make all of the decisions about their own professional development rather than being mandated to attend the training. They are treated like professional-grade doctors and lawyers at the highest level. They actually make the decisions not only about what books to use and what teaching method, but even about what their own professional development looks like. There’s a very clear set of standards for what the students need to know and be able to do at the end of each year and quarter, and we hold people accountable for that end goal. But we give them complete freedom to decide how they’re going to achieve it, which is how all professionals are treated. Unfortunately, it’s not how most teachers are treated in this country. Most teachers are treated like factory workers, where there’s a big set of rules on how they have to do everything.
What does the curriculum look like at Harlem Village Academy schools?
It looks like a classic liberal-arts curriculum, where math, reading, and writing are not the only subjects taught. Even if the state focuses its testing on those things, we do not let the state dictate our curriculum. We are interested in a rich curriculum that includes art and music and science and social studies and a wide variety of electives, and character education is integrated throughout.
How do you address the criticisms people have regarding charter schools?
I’d say that the main criticisms are stemming from the fact that in a charter system the teachers are not unionized, and they’re treated as professionals instead of as manual laborers. The charter movement is challenging the status quo, it’s coming along and saying we need to completely change the underlying premise of how we go about public education. Parents should be able to choose the school. We should give power to all parents, regardless of socioeconomic level, to choose where they send their child, and that creates market competition: if you have an amazing school with caring teachers and great results, parents are going to want to choose that school. If you have a failing school that is allowing for mediocrity, then it should phase itself out or get shut down because that’s not fair to the children. The charter movement is putting the needs of children first and is holding teachers accountable. It challenges the notion of tenure, where there’s no accountability at all. That’s not fair when a child enters, he’s 6 years old, and the teacher does not teach him how to read that year. But that teacher gets to keep their job for the rest of their life while that child did not learn how to read. That’s not fair to the child. So the charter movement is really shaking things up and challenging the current power structure of the entire public-education system. A lot of people have their own self-interests at heart rather than the interests of the children.
What’s next for you and the Harlem Village Academies?
We are going to triple in size in the next two years. We will have a full K-12 system. We’re starting two new elementary schools, we will be serving 2,000 children, but we don’t aspire to grow super-big. We want to use the platform of what we’ve learned and the results that we’ve produced—that our teachers have produced—to have a national influence on policy and on pedagogy. The laws that govern how schools are run constrain the ability of the principal to run the school well. They’re not allowed to build a team. And building a team where teachers are trusted and happy and having fun and collaborating and there for each other when things get difficult is really the foundation for an excellent school. So we want to find a way to get our message out nationally and continue to be part of the movement. We won’t rest until every child in this country has an opportunity to attend a quality school. It’s a civil right. It’s a human right. Public education is the only thing that will help society solve all of its problems. So we get up every day with a passion and a drive to help as many children as we possibly can.