February 23, 2010 – Deborah Kenny talks a lot about passion — the passion for teaching, for reading and for learning. She has it. She wants all of her teachers to have it. Above all, she wants her students to have it.
Ms. Kenny has created three phenomenally successful charter schools in Harlem and is in the process of creating more. She’s gotten a great deal of national attention. But for all the talk about improving schools in this country, she thinks we tend to miss the point more often than not.
There is an overemphasis on “the program elements,” she said, “things like curriculum and class size and school size and the longer day.” She understood in 2001, when she was planning the first of the schools that have come to be known as the Harlem Village Academies, that none of those program elements were nearly as important as the quality of the teaching in the schools.
“If you had an amazing teacher who was talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well,” she said, “that was just 100 times more important than anything else.”
This emphasis on program elements is one of the main reasons it has been so difficult to repeat the successes of outstanding schools. As Ms. Kenny put it, “They were trying to replicate programs instead of trying to develop people.”
It’s not that the program elements are unimportant. When I visited a Harlem Village Academy middle school on First Avenue, the first thing I noticed was an apparent paradox: There was a great deal of energy and excitement in the school but not much noise, not even when children were changing classes. The school day is longer. The curriculum is carefully thought out. And discipline is obviously important. Youngsters are not allowed to make fun of one another. And there is no fighting.
When I asked one boy why there were no fights in the school, he replied, “Because it’s not allowed.”
Ms. Kenny’s point is that these programmatic, structural elements in the schools are just the starting points, the foundation that supports the essential mission of any school: to teach.
“I became obsessed with how to develop great teachers,” she said.
The first step in that complex, difficult process is to create a school environment that has standards high enough and challenging enough to appeal to very good people. “You put all of your focus on finding great people,” said Ms. Kenny, “and you establish a culture that helps them constantly learn and grow and become better at what they do. You have to provide a community in the school that supports and respects teachers. And you have to give them the kind of freedom that allows their passion for teaching to flourish.
“We’ve created a culture that brings out the passion of the teachers and they bring out the passion of the kids.”
Charter schools, of course, can fire teachers for poor performance. “Obviously, none of us should be allowed to be in front of children if we’re not doing a good job,” Ms. Kenny said. “But the threat of being fired if you don’t do a good job is not what makes a teacher great.”
Ms. Kenny has established two middle schools and one high school and is in the process of creating three elementary schools. Her track record has been extraordinary.
The majority of the youngsters come into the middle schools performing at three to four years behind their grade levels. Within a very short time, they are on the fast track toward college. In 2008, when the math and science test scores came in, Ms. Kenny’s eighth graders had achieved 100 percent proficiency. It was not a fluke.
What’s ironic is that the teachers are doing everything but teaching to the tests. Ms. Kenny’s goals for the youngsters in her schools are the same as those that she had for her own three children, who grew up in a comfortable suburban environment and are now in college. Merely passing a standardized test was hardly something to aspire to.
“I had five core things in mind for my kids, and that’s what I want for our students,” she said. “I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”
It never crossed Ms. Kenny’s mind that a rich and abiding intellectual life was out of the reach of kids growing up in a tough urban environment.