Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

So whenever you hear about a school beating the odds, doing the impossible, defying expectations, it's usually in the context of a sports upset. Tiny Milan High School in Indiana was the basis for "Hoosiers," after all. Well, in New York City, one school is pulling off the equivalent of David slaying Goliath. On a statewide eighth-grade math test, a public school achieved perfection. All of its students passed.

That's the first time a charter school, or any school in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, has ever had a 100-percent pass rate on this particular test. So they're doing something right. Let's find out what. Deborah Kenny is the founding principal of the school. She's now the CEO of the three schools in the village academy's network. Hello Deborah.

Dr. DEBORAH KENNY, (Founder and Chief Executive, Village Academies): Good morning.

PESCA: Hello, Principal Kenny. So, thank you for inviting me to your office. First off, the Village Academy, they're a charter school, which means they're all public schools. Do the kids have to test in?

Dr. KENNY: Exactly the opposite.

PESCA: Mm.

Dr. KENNY: They're public schools that any student at all can get into simply by placing their name in a lottery.

PESCA: And how - what are the odds of getting a spot?

Dr. KENNY: Well, unfortunately, there are not enough charter schools right now for the thousands of parents and children who would like to get in, so the odds are not great, simply because there aren't enough schools. We're going to have to keep going to do more so that we can open up to the high demand.

PESCA: When did you found the school?

Dr. KENNY: About five years ago, actually, September, the very first Harlem Village Academy opened, and in that five years we've grown. Now we have three schools.

PESCA: And is it - are all the schools - they go up to what grade?

Dr. KENNY: Right now, we are - we already opened a high school, so we will take the kids all the way through high school and onto college.

PESCA: So your first group of fifth graders, are they now going into, what, tenth or eleventh grade? Same kids?

Dr. KENNY: Exactly.

PESCA: Wow.

Dr. KENNY: The first group of fifth graders are about to enter tenth grade now.

PESCA: Now, if I just ask you, you know, how do you do it? I know it's way too big to answer in this context, but I also know that you have corporate boardroom experience, and you're good at a bullet points, so what are the pillars of your success?

Dr. KENNY: Yeah. Well, I can - I actually could say it in one word, which is, it's the teachers.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. KENNY: And that may sound cliche, but actually it's very radical, and I'll tell you why. Education reform in our country since Brown versus Board of Ed, you know, since people have realized that we have a serious problem, and that way too many children are trapped in failing schools. People have tried to fix the program. You know, people have looked at, well, let's study the best schools.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. KENNY: And let's find out what they have in common, and then let's pass legislation or create programs that force everybody else to do exactly what those schools do, and that's been the approach for decades. It's been a very product-driven, if you will, or program-driven approach, where you look at the inputs and then try to sort of use a compliance model where everybody now has to follow this book, or this curriculum, or this class size, or this program, and it's a completely incorrect way to transform education.

PESCA: So what you did was you started with the teachers, you started with the kids, where did you start with?

Dr. KENNY: Right. So - exactly, so what we started with is, it's about the people, not the program. It's all about education, it's about the person standing in the front of the room, and if you're a parent, as I am, you know that what matters most is the quality of that teacher. So, the question is not only how do you attract excellent teachers, because there are - there are truly thousands of outstanding teachers. They just get frustrated and often leave, because of the frustrations of the systems they're in.

PESCA: Well, it's not only bureaucracy...

Dr. KENNY: Yeah.

PESCA: But you know, I'm - both my parents were teachers. They taught in good school districts. I've taught myself. You know, if you have a class of really unruly kids, there's only so much sometimes a teacher can do. So, what do you do to make sure the atmosphere is right?

Dr. KENNY: That's a great question. So first, we attract the great teachers, and we develop them. We provide five weeks of training in the summer. Every single decision we make in everything we do, we have two things in mind. One is, of course, what's best for the children, but immediately following that is, how do you create an amazing environment for teachers? What do teachers need? And we think about this, and work on it, and come up with systems all around, how do you design a school for teachers?

And when you start to give enough thought and put enough time into that, you begin to come up with the answers. So, what you said is one example, which is, how does a teacher deal with an unruly classroom? So, we spent an enormous amount of time figuring this out, and what we did is, we came up with a list of all the behaviors that teachers wanted to see, everything we do is designed by our teachers. So we let our teachers come up with this program of, what is every single behavior you want?

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Dr. KENNY: And not only in your classroom, but what behaviors do you want as a group of teachers across the school? And this includes how a child walks into your room, you know, you see classrooms where kids will walk in, and it can take 10 minutes just to settle them down.

PESCA: Right.

Dr. KENNY: So something as simple as, I want them to walk in quietly and get right to work. And they made a list of all the behaviors they wanted. We actually turned that list, teacher created, into a behavior curriculum. We turned that into lesson plans, and together with our teachers, we created a one-week behavior orientation that everybody in the school follows.

PESCA: And they have to sign agreements? They have to pledge - the students do, they have to pledge themselves to this?

Dr. KENNY: Well, yes, but you know, you can pledge to do it, and then if you're a ten year old, turn around and not do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Right.

Dr. KENNY: It's really more about the consistency that all the teachers created it together, and so now everybody follows it. Everybody insists on it. We practice it over and over and over with the kids. And what happens is if you insist on a behavior, and every other one of your colleagues in the school is insisting on that same exact expectation, the kids all of a sudden realize, wow, the teachers are all on the same page.

PESCA: And these are all - and these are all kids from the neighborhood, Latino and black children, for the most part. Could you - what's the class size? Is it comparable to public schools? Is it smaller?

Dr. KENNY: It's not that much smaller. We start out with about 28 kids in a class, sometimes up to 30. We don't have the luxury, because we use the same funding level as regular New York City schools, so it's about the same class size.

PESCA: So it's the same dollars spent per pupil.

Dr. KENNY: Yes. Now, we have to fundraise the difference...

PESCA: Right.

Dr. KENNY: Because we don't receive the same dollars, but we spend the same dollars.

PESCA: But you get it from the Gates Foundation and other donors.

Dr. KENNY: The gaps, the difference, between what we get and what we spend to be up to New York City levels comes from individual donors, that's correct, and a few foundations.

PESCA: Do you - I - the teachers had the ability to unionize. Could you achieve this with teachers in the New York Public School Teachers Union?

Dr. KENNY: I doubt it, because of all the rules that I've heard about, that are in place. However, because we go to such lengths to make the schools as - like, our goal is that the school should be a nirvana for teachers, that it should just be such an amazing place to work...

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. KENNY: That every problem is solved immediately, that every teacher has a voice, every teacher's opinion matters. So there would be no reason to unionize, because there's nothing that you would want that doesn't happen for you, because we focus so much on making it an amazing place for teachers.

PESCA: I guess my last question is, would you be able to pull this off in an entirely district-wide basis? I mean, there are 1,400 schools in New York City. There are 1.1 million students. You get the students who agree to it. you get the teachers who, you know, want to work in this very special system with kids who've opted in. Could it work for everyone?

Dr. KENNY: It is absolutely scalable. It is absolutely possible, and that's what we're aiming to achieve. The teachers who come to us are the same teachers from the regular public schools. All teachers want a school environment like this. You know, all teachers want to be supported and respected, and all children really, really can transform themselves into children who behave well and learn at a high level.

These are the same exact kids. And we have all kinds of kids who come in. Some of them adapt to the behavior expectations in three days. Some it takes a year, and it takes a lot of love, and discipline, and punishments, and more love, and it takes a long time, sometimes. So, it's the same exact kids, same exact parents. It's just the matter of taking a completely different approach.

PESCA: Deborah Kenny is the founding principal of Harlem Village Academy, and the CEO of a network of three charter schools based in Harlem, New York, and they're setting records and doing pretty cool things. Thanks very much, Deborah.

Dr. KENNY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.