Thursday, February 25, 2010

Who is Deborah Kenny and How Do We Encourage More Like Her?

As reported by Bob Herbert in the New York Times on Tuesday, Deborah Kenny has won national attention as a school reformer for creating three charter schools in Harlem that follow one simple rule: hire and nurture teachers who share her passion for learning and reading and who want, more than anything else, to imbue their students with that same passion. These three schools that together are called the Harlem Village Academies are obsessed with "developing people," Deborah Kenny says. Too many schools have put their energies into curriculum or testing or organization, while neglecting the most important piece by far. Recruiting remarkable teachers who are "talented and passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well," Kenny affirms, is "just 100 times more important than anything else."

During his visit to Kenny's schools, Herbert found schools that were energizing but calm, enthusiastic but peaceful. A great deal of attention had been paid to establishing the conditions inside the schools for thinking, active, engaged learning, and for the students to work well together. Bullying and violence of any kind are strictly taboo. When Herbert asked one boy why there were no fights in the school, the boy answered matter of factly, "Because it's not allowed."

Kenny insists that putting the focus on great people is the starting point, but you also must create a culture, so sorely lacking in other schools, that supports ongoing learning and helps teachers, each day, to get better at what they do. This really does mean that the teachers' learning is as important as the students' and, as Kenny emphasizes, that they have the "kind of freedom that allows their passion for teaching to [continue to] flourish." The more passionate the teachers are about learning, adds Kenny, the more passionate the kids become.

The schools have been phenomenally successful in raising standardized test scores, but, as Herbert explains, no one is teaching to the tests. Five goals drive the school. 1. Character Building 2. Developing a Sense of Social Responsibility 3. Acquiring Broad, General Knowledge 4. Having a Passion for Reading 5. Becoming Critical, Reflective Thinkers. Kenny insists these goals are possible for everyone, whether students come from affluent suburbs or poor urban neighborhoods. She is making it her mission to create as many such schools as possible in the unlikeliest environments imaginable. President Obama and Secretary Duncan take note. Maybe, just maybe, Deborah Kenny has the answer to one of our nation's most intractable problems.

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