Work Hard. Be Nice.
How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America
By Jay Mathews
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Copyright © 2009 Jay Mathews
All right reserved.
Chapter One Learning to Push
At age twenty-six, Mike Feinberg was supervising seventy low-income, mostly Hispanic fifth graders at Askew Elementary School in west Houston. It was 1995. They were the latest recruits for the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which rhymes with trip. It was a new but imperiled middle school program Feinberg and his friend Dave Levin, twenty-five, had started the year before.
That first year, they had run the program together in one crowded classroom at Garcia Elementary School in north Houston and they had doubled the number of students passing the state tests in that group. They wanted to create full-size fifth-through-eighth-grade middle schools, and they were going to do it in two separate cities. Levin had decided to move back to his hometown, New York City, to start a KIPP fifth grade in the South Bronx. Feinberg stayed in Houston to start a new KIPP fifth grade at a different school, Askew Elementary, since there was no room for his expansion plan at Garcia. Few of the people they knew thought KIPP would last very long in either Houston or New York. It was too stressful an approach, with long school days and very intense lessons. And Feinberg and Levin? They were too young and inexperienced to pull it off.
Feinberg had only one important ally, the Houston Independent School District's west district superintendent, Anne Patterson, and he had already tested her patience far beyond the point most school administrators would tolerate. He was hard to ignore, six foot three and very talkative, with a very short haircut as accommodation to his premature baldness. He was full of creative ideas but also had many demands and complaints. He was developing a reputation for being an unholy nuisance.
Patterson, a stylish dresser with a crown of thick red hair, often ended her day in tense meetings with Feinberg. She leaned forward on her desk. She kneaded her forehead with her fingers. She tried to figure out a way to get this effusive, overgrown adolescent to accept her view of the latest crisis so that she could go home.
At this particular moment in Feinberg's first year running KIPP Academy Houston by himself, he was near the breaking point. Space had to be found somewhere the following year for Feinberg to add a sixth grade on his way to a fifth-through-eighth-grade program. Patterson needed a building principal who could stomach Feinberg, and whom Feinberg, one of the least collegial educators she had ever met, would be capable of sharing a building with.
"I can be quiet and accommodating," Feinberg told her, "until I perceive in any way, shape, or form that someone is doing anything directly or indirectly to fuck with my babies, and then I become Mama Bear." Patterson already knew this. Patterson had promised to tell Feinberg by the Christmas holiday what space she had found for his expanded school, but it was January and she had no information for him. He kept calling her and showing up at her office. "Mike, you've got to be patient," she said.
Feinberg felt the Houston Independent School District was like an ocean liner: it took forever to make even the smallest turn. He would have preferred to be paddling a canoe - small, light, versatile, ready to careen down any rapids in its way. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that he would not be having this trouble if he were teaching the children of affluent Anglo parents in the River oaks neighborhood. His students lived in Gulfton, a sprawling collection of apartment complexes full of Central American immigrants. If KIPP had been in River oaks, getting reviews from parents as favorable as Feinberg was getting in Gulfton, and if that mythical River oaks KIPP had not been able to find space for the following year, those rich parents would have been screaming and yelling and the school district would quickly have found a way to give him everything he wanted.
Perhaps he should start screaming and yelling. Perhaps not. It often seemed to do more harm than good. But what if it were not him but his students who made the noise? with that thought began the KIPP Academy's first advocacy-in-democracy lesson. One of the advantages of the long KIPP day, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., was that there was time for creative diversions. He explained to the children that American citizens participated in their government not only by voting but also by exercising their right to file grievances with whoever was in charge. This included the people who ran schools, motor vehicle departments, housing agencies, public hospitals, tax assessment bureaus, and garbage collection companies. Some people petitioning for redress wrote letters. Some used the telephone. The point was never to accept bad service or bad products without a protest.
Feinberg had his fifth graders practice proper manners when complaining to officialdom. It was important to be persistent, but also polite. They had to act like serious adults. "Look, the minute you call up and start giggling on the phone, this is all ruined," he said. He waved his arms as he stood in front of a blackboard full of key words and phrases. "These are not crank calls. You are not Bart Simpson, calling Moe's tavern and seeing if you can get the bartender to say something nasty."
He gave them a script to practice with: "Hello, my name is Armando Ruiz. I am an extremely hardworking student. I am part of the KIPP Academy and we were supposed to know where we were going to be next year, which school building we would be moving to, but we don't know yet. I wonder if you have any information to give me about where our new school is going to be. My family and I are very worried about where we're going to be next year because we want to make sure we continue to get a great education."
The next day would be a good time for them to make the calls, Feinberg told them, since they would be at home. It was a professional development day. Only teachers would be in school. He handed each child a list of the telephone numbers of twenty administrators, including the Houston Independent School District superintendent, the deputy superintendent, the director of facilities, the director of transportation, members of the school board, and Patterson herself.
About 9:30 a.m. the next day, he got a message that he had an urgent telephone call. There was no phone in the KIPP trailers. He had to walk to the Askew main office. The call was from Patterson.
"Mike! Make them stop! Make them stop now!"
"Anne? what are you talking about?"
"You know damn well what I'm talking about. They are calling me. They are calling the district. I am starting to get people in the district calling me and yelling at me. Make them stop now."
"Anne, I can't," he said. "They're at home."
"What do you mean, they're at home?"
"This is our professional development day. They are at home."
"How are they calling, then?"
"I gave them all the numbers."
"You whaattt? You gave them all these numbers? The switchboard is ringing off the hook. They're all calling."
"What are they saying?" he asked. He was interested in how well his students had carried out their assignment.
"They want to know where they're going to be next year."
"And what's wrong with that?" Feinberg said. It was best to keep Patterson on the defensive. "Like, you don't tell me where we are going to be next year, so I am having the kids ask."
Patterson ended the conversation quickly. Feinberg, as she expected, was going to be no help. She would have to explain to her bosses what had happened. As was standard operating procedure for administrators dealing with mischievous underlings, she would tell everyone she was going to put a stop to this.
But that was a lie. There was something about Mike, and his friend Dave, that she thought deserved both protection and encouragement, even if they were two of the most exasperating teachers she had ever met.
Levin was having similar trouble in New York City. Now fourteen hundred miles apart, he and Feinberg still spoke to each other by telephone nearly every day. Levin envied Feinberg's chutzpah in unleashing his advocacy-loving students on the Houston school bureaucracy. He was sure the Houston officials would bend. He wished New York were as easy.
Like Feinberg, Levin was hard to miss. He was the same height, six foot three, although a bit leaner. While teaching a lesson, he was always moving, talking, asking questions, keeping everyone on top of what was going on. Levin was making some progress in the classroom. He was turning into an exceptional teacher, but it was clear to him that he was not good enough.
Twelve of the forty-seven students Levin recruited his first year in the South Bronx had quit by the time he started his second year. The woman he had hired to serve as an administrative director had developed a philosophical dislike of his methods and had left. Frank Corcoran, the sweet-tempered teacher who had come from Houston to help him, was having trouble maintaining discipline in his classes. The Porch, a way of disciplining children by isolating them in the classroom, had worked in Houston but not in the Bronx, and Levin stopped using it. His students were used to punishment and hard times. They didn't see being forced to sit in the corner and not to talk to classmates as any great penalty. Levin looked for ways to raise his students' morale and his own. He asked his barber to shorten his big mop of curly hair, hoping it would make him feel sharper. But it still wasn't enough.
Levin was not sure where to turn. Marina Bernard, a young teacher he hired after he fired his school director, had a suggestion. She had taught at Intermediate School 166, a public school for sixth-through-eighth graders, also in the Bronx. It was full of kids with the same troublesome attitudes the KIPP students had.
"I know what you need," she said to Levin. "You need to go over to 166. He's there. You just got to learn how to control him."
She was speaking of a Bronx public school legend, Charlie Randall. He was a forty-nine-year-old music teacher who had grown up virtually parentless in the poorest neighborhoods of Orlando, Florida. He was a talented teacher, famous for producing terrific bands and orchestras with children who had never played instruments before. But he was also, everyone said, quite volatile. There were stories of his violent temper. On at least two occasions, they said, he had done serious harm to school staffers who had wounded him in ways he could not forgive.
Randall's first look at Levin confirmed his assumption: another crazy white boy. The kid was arrogant too. Who the hell did he think he was to come into Randall's neighborhood and act as if he was going to rescue Randall's kids? The veteran teacher already knew how to help disheartened and confused students find a way in life. He had grown up like that himself. He knew how to reach them. Could this Yale man ever understand such children?
Randall was polite, but he told Levin he was going to stay where he was. Levin kept calling. He knew as well as Feinberg the power of the personal approach, of advocacy that politely and persistently made the points that had to be made, over and over. He called Randall nearly every day. "How you doin', Charlie? How are things going?" he said. Did Randall have some advice for Levin on adding a music program? Could he come over on Thursday afternoons to teach music to a few KIPP kids?
The last request was a way to earn extra money, so Randall agreed. He brought with him the battered instruments he always kept in the trunk of his car: an old keyboard held together with duct tape, a beat-up violin, a couple of drums, and a few bells. When he got to KIPP, he was surprised. There was a warmth that he did not usually find in schools in the Bronx. The bulletin boards were colorful and welcoming. The kids were absorbed in what they were doing.
Levin kept coming at him. But the young teacher had no master plan. If he had envisioned what would happen - that Randall would create an orchestra that would include every student in the school and become an East Coast sensation - if he had dared even to suggest such a thing to Randall, he would have been dismissed by the older man as completely insane.
Finally Levin came up with the right argument. During one of their telephone conversations, Randall was explaining for the eighty-ninth time that he was just too old and too set in his ways to change schools. "I'm established. I am a master teacher. I have teacher-of-the-year awards and other stuff like that. I just don't need this."
"Wait," Levin said. "when you retire, what are you going to leave behind?"
Randall thought about it. "well, nothing," he said. "I have these awards, and some memories. That is all I expect."
"That's a mistake," Levin said. "If you come with us, you will have me, and Marina, and the other staff that will be coming on board. You can leave everything you know with us, and we can carry on your legacy."
Whoa, Randall thought. That was a tough one. It was coming from a smart-ass kid. What did he know about legacies? But Levin wasn't going to give up, as Randall had thought he would. Levin said he wanted to stay in the ghetto, unlike those other Ivy League guys that always left. If he was working that hard to get Randall, maybe he meant it.
Excerpted from Work Hard. Be Nice. by Jay Mathews Copyright © 2009 by Jay Mathews. Excerpted by permission.
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