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Cage-Busting in the Early Years

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP.

In my last post, I discussed results from a new Mathematica study that shows KIPP middle school students make substantial academic gains in all subjects and grades. Today I want to talk about how cage-busting has propelled KIPP to grow and improve over the past 20 years.

The story of cage-busting at KIPP starts in Houston in 1994, with two novice fifth-grade teachers struggling to boost students' achievement and morale against staggering odds. Those two teachers were Dave Levin and me, and it was a stark introduction to the "cage" mindset that permeated far too many schools in underserved communities. Very few adults around our students were challenging the notion that children in poverty couldn't learn as well as more affluent children could. What our students needed was for their school leaders and principals to bust the cages of low expectations and bureaucracy, and to motivate all the adults in their school buildings to do the same.

We fell into the trap at first, too. It was easy to go into the teachers' lounge, point the finger, and blame other teachers, other schools, the school district, the community, the kids themselves, their parents, and society for why our children weren't succeeding. But then our mentor teacher, Harriett Ball, helped to slap us back into reality. To put it mildly, she hurled us out of the caged mindset. Once we were out, we realized that we never wanted to go back into the cage again.

Over the first few years of KIPP, there were several strategies we used to cage-bust our way to success for our students:

Creating KIPP. Dave's and my first cage-busting decision was to break out of the traditional public school mode altogether. Inspired by Harriett Ball and other visionary educators like Rafe Esquith, we began to see that there was a way to turn classroom instruction on its head, while convincing students that they can and will learn. So one night in 1993, fired up with ideas and optimism as second-year Teach for America corps members, Dave and I sat down at my computer, put U2's Achtung Baby on repeat play, and brainstormed our way to a whole new vision of public schooling. By morning, the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP for short, was born. We would offer students an extended school day and year, make learning and teaching fun, and set the expectation from day one that college was in our students' future.

Sustaining the first KIPP Academies. The first incarnation of KIPP was a single fifth grade class within a Houston district school. Even just starting a brand-new program within a district school raised some eyebrows, and we had to push hard to make it happen. But, the next year, when KIPP needed to expand to a new space in order to add a sixth grade, we found that young teachers with a crazy idea weren't getting very far with the district administration. So we decided to turn everyone's expectations upside down--and turn a frustrating experience into a teachable moment--by having the students do the advocating. We helped students write letters and make phone calls to district leaders, helping them practice how to politely and insistently stand up for themselves. It worked. Astonished by our students' persistence, the district helped us secure a building. KIPP as a middle school model was up and running.

Finding space for KIPP Academy in Houston. As KIPP grew to serve more students across more grades, space was still an issue. Our Houston district supporters tried to get us buildings, and were told no. No buildings. No modulars. No classrooms beyond what we already had. We had one option left: for me to take our case all the way up to the Houston district superintendent at the time, Rod Paige, who went on to become the US Secretary of Education. I tried and failed to get an appointment with him, so I decided to stalk him (sorry Rod, and thank you for forgiving me.) One hot afternoon, I sat on the bumper of his car in the district parking lot and waited for four hours until he showed up. He seemed surprised and impressed by my crazy stunt, and set me up to meet with district representatives who were able to get us the space we needed to let KIPP grow.

Growing KIPP nationwide. In the beginning, there were two KIPP schools: Houston and New York City. When we decided to expand KIPP, in partnership with Don and Doris Fisher, we ended up making perhaps the most surprising cage-busting leadership decision of all: to not try to do the work ourselves, and instead, to trust others to carry on the work we started. We empowered principals of new KIPP schools to make decisions on their own, from hiring faculty and staff to modifying KIPP's schedule to suit their students' needs. This faith in individual leaders blossomed into the KIPP School Leadership Program, which trains educators to open new KIPP schools. Over time, we moved to what Harvard professor Richard Elmore calls "distributive leadership," training not just school founders, but assistant principals, department chairs, and special education coordinators. This model has helped us grow to 125 charter schools serving 41,000 students in 20 states and Washington DC.

Cage-busting for us has been a process of growth and exploration. Over the past 20 years, KIPP has sought out new and better ways to fulfill our promises to students. We still have plenty to learn, and there are many new questions to answer, like: How do we avoid getting bogged down in bureaucracy as our network grows? How do we maintain quality across the network while preserving innovation? We are thrilled with what we've accomplished so far, and now we're raring to go for more.

-- Mike Feinberg

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