Learning the Hard Way

Jay Mathews | Posted on 04/01/09

For Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the worst year of their long effort to help inner-city children was probably 1997. They had created the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) in a Houston elementary school three years before. It had gone well at first. But by early 1997 Feinberg’s KIPP middle school in Houston and Levin’s KIPP middle school in the south Bronx were being strangled by bureaucrats and skeptics, and it looked like they would both have to give up their dream.

Feinberg had his fifth- and sixth-grade classes in trailers behind a middle school that would not even let his students use the library. School district officials told him they had no space for him the next year when he wanted to add a seventh grade. He was so desperate that he tried to see the Houston Independent School District superintendent, Rod Paige, who would later become the U.S. secretary of education. But Paige was an important man, and his secretaries would not let the twenty-eight-year-old Feinberg near him.

In the Bronx, the situation was even worse, Levin thought. At least Feinberg’s classes were full of kids whose parents praised the new school, with its nine-hour days, great teaching, and fun. Levin’s families were not so keen on what he was doing. A dozen students left the school after the first year. Like Feinberg, Levin was told he would not have any more space the next year. Even his personal life was falling apart. A woman he had been dating for eight months told him she was engaged to someone else. A glitch in the New York City school computer kept him and his staff from getting their paychecks. 

More than a decade later, the story of KIPP in the dark, cold winter of 1997 sounds impossible, given what the schools have become. By this summer the program will have eighty-four schools in twenty states and the District of Columbia. Across the country it has produced the most impressive gains in achievement for low-income minority children ever seen — from the thirty-second to the sixtieth percentile in reading and from the fortieth to the eighty-second percentile in math in just four years of middle school.

But Levin and Feinberg came very close to being forced to give it all up. The only reason they did not was their essential stubbornness, their unwillingness to admit failure. Many social scientists call this resilience, or the newly popular term grit. Both have become interested in the work of scholars Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth on grit (see Duckworth interview in this issue). Levin is considering plans to cooperate with the researchers on more studies. They will be looking at the work of students, of course, but the resilience shown by KIPP’s two founders might also be suitable material for analysis.

Feinberg escaped his low point more quickly than Levin, but only because Levin was in worse shape and had fewer options. In both cases, the teachers just kept trying things, one after another, until something clicked.

Feinberg, for instance, had noticed after one of his failed attempts to see Paige that there was a parking space marked “Superintendent” in the open lot next to the main entrance of the school district headquarters. The next day, armed with papers to grade, Feinberg returned to that spot and spent the next several hours leaning against Paige’s maroon Acura, waiting for the moment when the superintendent would have to head home for dinner.

It was about six p.m. when Paige appeared, his briefcase packed with work. He recognized Feinberg, having visited KIPP once. Feinberg gave him his most concerned look. “Hi, Dr. Paige. I’m in a pickle,” he said. “You’ve got to help me.”

Paige was intrigued. As the football coach at Jackson State University in Mississippi, he had sometimes cornered the school’s president that way when he’d had a problem. He invited Feinberg to come see him the next morning. Before long KIPP Houston had its space: an underused office building just a hundred yards from Paige’s parking space.

Levin was happy for Feinberg, but his friend’s success reminded him what little chance he had of succeeding in New York. The superintendent of that school system had no idea who he was, and if he tried the same stunt Mike had, he would probably be arrested. He decided to close the school and return to Houston to help Feinberg. There didn’t seem to be any alternative.

But while sipping a beer in Patrick Kavanagh’s Irish pub near his East Side apartment, forlornly celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday on March 16, Levin changed his mind. He could not walk away, he decided. He had lost sight of what was really important. It wasn’t about the way the school district was treating him. What was important was to fight the fight regardless of what happened, to keep going until they shut the school down. At least it would not be him giving up and walking away from his kids. They couldn’t walk away from the difficulties in their lives.

The two original KIPP schools were not saved at that moment. They had many more hard years ahead. But personal strength, a refusal to quit, had turned the tide. The lessons Feinberg and Levin were teaching their students, low-income children being prepared for college, began to have a larger meaning and deepened their resolve to give those kids a chance.

Recently I caught an echo of Levin and Feinberg in 1997 when I interviewed Dan Castillo, one of Levin’s early students whose family still lives in a Bronx public housing project not from the KIPP Academy. Castillo had done so well at KIPP that he had been admitted to a prestigious private high school, Northfield Mount Hermon. His new teachers hit him with an academic workload worse than anything he had ever seen.

“But I learned at KIPP that I had to make sacrifices, like the fact that I had been going to school from seven-thirty a.m. to five p.m. since the fifth grade,” he said. He put his head down and got to work. This year he will graduate from Colgate University with a joint major in economics and political science.

As Levin and Feinberg try to expand KIPP and improve its teaching, they say they expect more bad times, more unexpected reverses. But having seen so many of their students overcome their disadvantages by simply refusing to give in, the two of them are unlikely to ever feel as desperate as they did that winter twelve years ago. Just keep moving forward and something good will happen, they tell their students, and themselves.

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