Charting a New Course: Q&A with Education Visionary Deborah Kenny

"It’s just very strange to have a good thing come from a bad thing"

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Courtesy Harper Collins

In her late 30s, Deborah Kenny seemed to have everything. She and her soul mate, her husband Joel, were living in the suburbs outside New York City so that her three young children could take advantage of the local public schools; he was en route to academic success; and after earning a Ph.D. in comparative international education, she was hoping to find a way to devote her life to others.

Having been persuaded away from her dream of creating schools for children in underserved communities, Kenny was nonetheless convinced that she could combine a strong sense of social purpose with the business of profit. But in mid-1998, just as she was about to start a high-flying corporate job, Joel was diagnosed with leukemia. Kenny’s memoir, Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching Their Highest Potential, explores what followed: her quest to create the Harlem Village Academies as a young widow.

TIME: Losing your husband inspired you to leave the corporate world and open a charter school—from scratch. That’s an extraordinary decision at any time, let alone at such a point.

Deborah Kenny: It’s just very strange to have a good thing come from a bad thing. And because I still wish I could go back and change what happened, it’s hard to think about this the way other people do. There’s still no way for me to ever look at it as a good thing. Does that make sense?

Early on in your job at the Parenting Group, under the heading “School,” you drew a stick figure of a child surrounded by the words love, books, values, confidence, nature, service, character and curiosity. Perhaps you would have come to that decision anyway.

It might have come about in a different way: I probably wouldn’t have been reading Man’s Search for Meaning, but I do think this was meant to be.

Born to Rise is full of swift, vivid portraits of your mentors, students and colleagues but also of your children and husband.

He was an extraordinary person. He was one of those people that you’re lucky if you meet once in your life. And an overwhelming number of people who’ve been reading the book have said, “To me, this isn’t a book about education. It’s a book about finding your path in life and doing something with your life.”

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You just mentioned Viktor Frankl’s book, but Jack Welch’s memoir Straight from the Gut was also important.

Yes, the people I learned the most from about leadership were ultimately all very successful business leaders.

You had enough savings to subsidize six months’ worth of planning, searching for funding, finding a facility, and making it through New York State’s authorization process. Support from the Gates Foundation was key, but under its proviso you had to be approved for at least two charters. And then, as you put it: “It was a catch-22. I needed the charters to get the funding, but I needed funding to get the charters.” That was only the beginning.

It definitely made me grateful for all the people with whom I work with now. It was very difficult, but at the time I don’t think I felt the stress because I was working on adrenaline for a couple of years.

It doesn’t sound as though you’re running on any less adrenaline a decade later.

Now there are a lot more people involved—teachers, principals and others—who have really devoted their lives to the cause.

Often when one hears about educational initiatives, computers seem to be involved, whereas in your book the stress is on reading.

I think that technology will certainly play some role, but we’ve known for a very long time how to educate children at a high level. I’m a big believer in classical liberal arts education.

We just have to get out of our own way and allow the profession to attract the best and brightest. I believe that the union construct is basically designed around the lowest common denominator. It’s to help the worst performing teachers to hang onto their jobs rather than to allow talent to be cultivated and to flourish.

(MORENew Grades On Charter Schools)

That can’t have been the original goal of the union.

It wasn’t. The original goal was very, very noble. The vast majority of teachers were women—they weren’t being treated well, they weren’t being paid enough. It was organizing to that end, and that made sense.

It’s just a shame that it’s become what it is now. The union is constantly, fighting against the charter movement. It’s like there’s a burning building and there are children trapped inside, and they’re standing at the door and won’t let you go in. It’s just unconscionable.

One of the first things most of your students responded to was your message of discipline: “We’re strict,” you told your class of fifth-graders the day your first school opened, “because we love you.”

The whole vision was, “What would I want for my own children?” I really, really fought hard to stay away from a focus on reward and punishment. Instead we used a series of preventive discipline strategies—all the different things you do to set up the kids for success in the first place—so that children will take ownership of their own actions rather than doing something so they won’t get in trouble. You teach your children the habits of courtesy and kindness and respect in the course of your day-do-day life, and then it’s just expected of them.

You and your team eventually hammered out 13 core values, one of which begins: “If we ever become a bureaucracy, please shoot us.”

That’s my favorite. I think there’s a story in the book that I tell—when I finished graduate school, I wanted to become a public school principal. And one professor literally said, “You would not last a minute in a bureaucracy.”

(MOREDo Charter Schools Pass The Test?)

But you have proved her wrong.

The charter kind of frees us from much of it—not all of it, but much of it.

Accountability is another great concern.

Right now the teachers’ union has geared the issue so much by saying, “Well, everybody should be accountable,” which doesn’t help when you’re a six year-old and you’re in a classroom with a teacher who is supposed to teach you to read and is not. My view is that accountability is actually the underlying condition that allows charter schools to give teachers freedom and respect and treat them as professionals. Nobody would go to a doctor if he had patient after patient after patient telling their friends either his skills or his attitude was terrible—and it should be the same for any profession.

Would it be fair to say that even when you were young, you were intent on eradicating injustice and inequality?

It’s funny, I’m hearing from a lot of friends who knew me as a teenager, and it’s interesting to hear their take. One friend—let me see if I can find his email—said, “I remember our very first chat in the laundry room at camp. I knew you were a whack job who was going to do something substantial on the planet!”

Your goal was never about creating one school. It was about creating a school system. Do you want to go national?

No matter how fast you work and no matter how many schools you open, there are millions and millions of kids living in poverty. So I decided instead that we would begin searching for a way to help influence policy and practice, because there are basically two things that get in the way of all schools running well: either people don’t know what to do or they know what do but they can’t do it.

I’m hoping that we can find a way to build an educational institution that not only runs schools but teaches other people how to run schools. And if they can’t do it because the laws are preventing them from doing it, then I’m hoping to use the power of our credibility and experience to influence policy and to join the education-reform community and others who are doing the same.

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