Published: October 2010

Nine years ago, after her husband’s early death left Deborah Kenny searching for her life’s purpose, she set out to radically reenvision public school education. “I decided to help children who didn’t have any way, other than education, to extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty,” she says. So Kenny, a mother of three and former teacher, sank her life savings into creating a revolutionary charter school.

Harlem Village Academy opened in 2003 with two fifth-grade classes and has since grown into three schools with more than 700 children who are beating the odds: The academies were ranked the number one public school in New York State in eighth-grade math in 2007, with 100 percent of the students meeting proficiency standards on state exams. Says fellow education advocate Bill Cosby, “I have looked into the eyes of children who want to learn. They’re unhappy with themselves because they want to be able to do math and science. I’ve also seen the faces of Harlem Village Academy students. Being able to listen to both and compare their body language, I can tell you, what Deborah Kenny is doing works.” Cosby sat down with Kenny to learn more.

Bill Cosby: What are you doing that other schools aren’t?

Deborah Kenny: Our country’s approach to education has been wrong for decades. We’re failing because we treat teachers like factory workers—they teach a prescribed curriculum from preselected books. The Harlem Village Academies are based on one core idea: belief in the power of teachers. We coach them weekly on how to make lessons more challenging and interesting for the kids and give them the freedom to run their own classrooms. That engenders passion and dedication, and in the end we can hold our teachers accountable for results.

BC: You get an estimated 500 applicants for one teacher opening. What makes you look at someone and say, “You’re it!”?

DK: Of course teachers have to know their subjects inside and out. But the real question we want answered is: Do you believe that all children have the potential to learn? There are some educators who say things like “Some kids just won’t make it” or “Let’s go easy on these kids since they’re poor or black and Hispanic.” I don’t want people with that attitude working in our school.

BC: Children come to Harlem Village Academies in the fifth grade but with first and second-grade academic skills. How long does it take them to catch up?

DK: First, we should define “catching up.”We don’t use standardized tests as our measure because passing them is just the beginning. If you read the papers of children who live in high-income neighborhoods, you see they have a sophistication that goes well beyond the skills required to pass a basic test. We want our students to be sophisticated thinkers who are creative and able to study at an intense level. And it can take up to four years to get them to that level.

BC: Does it bother you that you’ve found a proven, successful approach to education, but other schools are not following the example?

DK: Yes, it does. There is not equality in America, and I think about it constantly. We have 14 million children living in poverty, and there is a complete disparity between the education they receive and that of a child in a high socioeconomic bracket. But we’ve learned many lessons over the years and are now figuring out how to share that knowledge with educators around the country. That’s a critical first step to solving the education problem nationally.