Selected readings on US charter schools
Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin Reminisce About the Birth of KIPP
October 11th, 1993 is the day that Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin stayed up all night listening to U2’s Achtung Baby on a repeating loop and developed their plan for KIPP. On the 20th anniversary of that day, Susan Rundbaken, KIPP Communications Manager, caught up with Mike and Dave to reminisce about that night and reflect on the impact KIPP has had on 50,000 KIPP students and 13,000 KIPP alumni.
Help set the scene. It is 1993. You’re in your early 20’s, single, and living in Houston for the first time. You are roommates who play a lot of basketball and spend a lot of time teaching as Teach For America (TFA) corps members. What else is taking place in your lives during that time?
Dave: Teaching is incredibly hard work. If you’re going to make teaching a career, you’ve got to find a way to renew constantly. Now that means spending time with my wife, two sons, two dogs, and friends. In 1993, that meant whatever time wasn’t spent teaching, thinking about teaching, talking about teaching, or taking kids on field lessons was spent playing basketball or hanging out around Houston. We joked that KIPP’s motto could have been Work hard. Be nice. Play hard.
Were you already getting ideas for what would ultimately become KIPP?
Mike: The seeds were definitely there. Mostly, it began with watching Harriett Ball in her classroom. She blew us away, and we just soaked up her wisdom like two sponges. She was such a master at getting her kids excited to learn, with her chants and songs and relentless focus on learning. That was really how we started, learning the craft of teaching from Harriett. The phrase “Knowledge Is Power” came directly from her.
According to Jay Mathews’ book Work hard. Be nice., the night you went home and drafted a plan for KIPP, was also the night you went to hear Rafe Esquith speak at Lee High School in Houston. What made you decide to go hear him speak on that fateful night?
Mike: Joe Sawyer, a fellow TFA corps member at my school knew the woman who ran the Houston Seminar – the organization that brought Rafe to town to speak. Joe went to dinner with Rafe the night before and came to school saying we had to go hear this guy talk because he was up our alley. So we went to check him out. It was a week night so not much was going on other than Star Trek the Next Generation reruns on TV and grading papers at home.
What is still burned in your memory from the talk Esquith gave?
Dave: Rafe’s attention to every detail in his classroom was so incredibly similar to Harriett Ball’s attention to detail. I had seen another amazing teacher in Houston at the time, whose name unfortunately I can’t remember, who also was obsessed with the details of her classroom. It crystalized for me that this remarkable attention to all of the details of a class was really the common denominator of all great teachers.
Mike: And the two sixth grade girls he brought with him who did mental math and recited Shakespeare live on stage.
Would you believe someone if they told you then that you’d still be involved in education, let alone co-founders of an organization of 141 schools serving 50,000 students in low-income communities?
Dave: I would believe the teaching part. By Thanksgiving of my second year teaching, I knew I was hooked on teaching for life. I would not believe the incredible fact that KIPP is reaching more than 50,000 kids this fall.
According to the book, you left the event, came home, and booted up “Feinberg’s Macintosh Classic, put U2’s Achtung baby on the stereo repeat-play, and began typing up their new plan.” Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you just went to sleep when you got home?
Mike: I probably would have ended up going to Law School and who knows what from there.
Dave: I definitely would have returned to New York City to continue teaching. Whether I would have become a principal at some point in time I don’t really know. I loved teaching and as I got better, I found myself totally at peace in a classroom. Even as principal of KIPP Academy in the Bronx, I continued to teach — as I did the first few years I was superintendent. Because I was able to keep teaching while being a principal, I’d have to say that those years as principal and teacher have been among the best of the past twenty years.
Why Achtung Baby? Any other contenders that night?
Mike: After lots of road trips and parties, there were a couple groups we both liked – U2 at the top of the list, Rolling Stones, and then assorted hip hop and Top 40. The rest of our tastes diverged into different categories. Dave only tolerated heavy metal. U2 was much more inspirational.
Dave: No way I would have stayed up all night with Mike if he insisted on Mötley Crüe – even if my ringtone for my wife is now, “Home Sweet Home.”
When you started typing, what was the scope of the plan?
Mike: To think about what we could do as teachers to accomplish what we set out to do when we left TFA Summer Institute in Los Angeles 14 months earlier.
Dave: At that time, we just wanted to put together an awesome program for two classes of 5th graders that would get them ready for the best public schools in Houston. We naively thought that would be enough to make sure they got on and more naively stayed on a path to college. By October of the first year of KIPP, we knew that wouldn’t be enough. We knew we needed to start a school.
Was college completion always the goal?
Mike: Yes – sort of – having great lives was always the goal – college was an important gate keeper on that path.
Dave: As Mike says, college was just a means toward an end. The end was always choice filled lives.
The book says you both can’t remember who came up with the name. Is that still true?
Mike: My mom says it was her. We were both using Harriett Ball’s chants and Knowledge Is Power comes from her “Read Baby Read” song. We were taking turns typing and talking so who knows who typed it first.
Dave: Too funny. I’ve got no idea who typed it. I do know it wasn’t Mike’s mom.
If you had to rename KIPP today, what would you call it?
Mike: KIPP! If forced to choose a second name, I’d go with 3D (Desire, Discipline, and Dedication).
Dave: I remember one of our earliest critics, who has since become a big KIPP fan, claimed that Mike and I hadn’t really done anything other than give our classroom a name. We replied, “At least it’s a good name.” I still feel that way today – I like our name. There wouldn’t have been a KIPP without Harriett Ball, and our name ensures that her memory lives on.
Plus the kids like calling themselves KIPPsters. That’s not doable with a lot of names. As much as I agree with Mike and like 3D, 3Dsters doesn’t quite have the same ring.
We know that Harriett passed away in February of 2011. How do you hope she is remembered?
Mike and Dave: God’s gift to the classroom.
This summer, KIPP will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first class of KIPP students. Those students are now in their late 20’s. Do you still keep in touch with them?
Dave: It always makes us a little sad that we weren’t able to keep all of that first class all the way through middle school. Once we started the two schools in 1995, we’ve stayed in touch with almost 100% of the alums. The most inspiring part of the past twenty years has been watching the KIPPsters grow up and pursue all types of remarkable jobs and careers. Of course it’s particularly awesome that 31% of our alums are now working in education.
Mike: That said, we are in direct contact with 15-20 students from the original class and try to stay in touch with the rest via social media.
It’d be really easy to say that after that all-nighter: “The rest is history!” But we know that isn’t true. KIPP is still evolving as an organization. Where would you say KIPP is on its journey?
Mike: It feels like we’re in the middle of the journey, trying to make a true impact on our children’s and families’ lives. Looking at my hairline and body, however, I’d say it looks like 20 years later.
Dave: Mike did have a pony-tail back then!
As more and more KIPP alums start teaching at our schools it really is starting to feel like the beginning of a new chapter of the KIPP story. The next chapter will be when the KIPPsters become school leaders, regional leaders, and ultimately take over the entire thing.
What would you say has been the most significant change in public education landscape since that night in 1993?
Mike: Belief in what’s possible in underserved communities and with underserved children beyond random success stories.
Dave: I agree with Mike. Most people, no longer argue that it’s impossible to build a transformative public school in any neighborhood in this country. The only question is how we do it for every kid in every school.
What currently keeps you up through the night?
Mike: Questions like: Are we keeping our promises to our children and families? What do I want to be when I group up?
Dave: How do we keep getting better as we get bigger? It’s so important that we continue to do both.
On the personal side, right now one of my sons is transitioning out of night-time diapers so I’m waking up at 2:54 a.m. to make sure he goes to the bathroom.
Thank you to Mike and Dave for reflecting on the night you drafted your plan for KIPP 20 years ago. We’ll be sharing more conversations like this in advance of the official 20th Anniversary this summer.
Source: KIPP (blog) – By Susan Rundbaken, KIPP Communications Manager, KIPP Foundation