Young Principals as Rock Stars

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 1, 2005 11:51 AM

One warm morning in May of 1997, a veteran New York City school administrator named Susan Winston, then 48, walked into Public School 156 in South Bronx to check out an unusual elementary school program. Dave Levin, the tall, curly-haired 27-year-old supervising the four classrooms of fifth and sixth graders, had introduced himself to her at an earlier meeting. He seemed nice, but her first impression was that his little school-within-a-school was going nowhere unless it got some help.

There was no sign in front of the school or in front of his classrooms saying anything about what Levin and his friend Mike Feinberg called the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP for short. A casual visitor, Winston thought, would have noticed little difference between what Levin and his four teachers were doing and all the other things going on in the fortress-like inner city school. Levin had only five years of teaching experience and was much too young, some people in the district thought, to be taken seriously as a school leader.

But Winston had run a program in Newark, N.J., with 180 students when she was 28, and she was less concerned about his age. The minute she stepped into one of his classrooms, she realized this particular young man had something to offer. The students were alert and interested in the lesson. They responded quickly to frequent and friendly teacher questions. The classes seemed almost completely devoid of the chatter, inattention and mischief that characterized many of the schools Winston visited.

Levin and Feinberg started KIPP as an experimental fifth grade in 1994 when Levin was 24 and Feinberg 25. Each started his own KIPP school the next year, Feinberg remaining in Houston and native New Yorker Levin going to the Bronx. Eight years later, there are 47 KIPP schools in 15 states and the District, nearly every one of them run by principals in their twenties and thirties who often get astonished looks when they tell strangers what they do.

This surge of young principals is not only at KIPP. New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit group, is training mostly young principals (average age 35) in the District, Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Memphis and Oakland, Calif. I watched D.C. school officials celebrate principalships for three of the group's brand-new graduates as their classmates cheered at a ceremony last spring. Hundreds of charter schools -- public schools that run independently of the school districts they are in -- have installed principals under 40. Educational philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are creating hundreds of smaller high schools run by bright and ambitious young people who would otherwise have to spend a decade or so as assistant principals before they got a chance to run their own schools. They also are among the founders of New Leaders for New Schools.

This youth movement is too new and too small to inspire any useful research on how many there are or how they are doing. But as I watched the principals of what are now four KIPP fifth-to-eighth-grade middle schools in New York City last week -- all of them younger than my oldest child -- it occurred to me the energy and optimism of that age group might be just what our schools need.

The source of KIPP's success -- its test scores are often far above those of neighboring schools with similarly disadvantaged children -- is not a mystery. The students arrive at about 7:30 a.m. and don't leave until 5 p.m. There are two or three Saturday sessions each month. A three-week summer school is mandatory. Consistent punishments (usually loss of privileges) and attractive rewards (such as a trip to the movies) have proved to be powerful motivators.

But the key to the transformation of the learning experience in those schools has been the quality of the teaching -- and it's here that the sharply focused and hard-working young principals have had the most important influence. They are continually emphasizing, monitoring and reinforcing a classroom style in which teachers are enthusiastic, clear, personal and full of games and stunts and chants that make learning fun. They are all successful young teachers who hire people with their same traits, and make sure that in every lesson, every child, even the frightened little girl in the corner or the sullen boy in the back, is brought into the discussion of the topic at hand.

During an earlier visit to the KIPP Academy New York, the school Levin started in the Bronx, I watched Quinton Vance, Levin's 30-year-old successor as principal, teach a fifth-grade reading class in just this way.

"Who wants to give us a quick review of what happened the last time we read?" said Vance, a 6-foot-3-inch University of Oregon graduate who often hugs his students. "A real quick one. Wesley, let's hear a nice, strong voice."

Wesley could not be heard, so Vance encouraged him. "A nice, STRONG voice," the principal said.

The book was "Maniac Magee" by Jerry Spinelli. After students read a few sentences, Vance insisted that they analyze what was happening. "Why is that significant in this story?" he asked at one point. "Why is that so amazing that Mars Bar would come to the McNab's house? Why is that so amazing, Jasmine?"

The girl tried an answer: "Because he was never in the West End?"

"He was never in the West End," Vance said, and gave her a smile. "So what was there about Mars Bar that would make him never, ever go to the West End? Soyva?"

"Because, because . . . " she said, not quite sure.

"Because what? Because on the West End of town is where all the people who were white live, and the people on the East End were what?"

Several voices answered at once: "Black!"

"And they were what?"

"Divided!"

"So it is very significant that Maniac would bring Mars Bar from the East End to the West End, to McNab's house, right?" said Vance with another smile. "Good. Any other comments? I will take two before we read some more."

Every eye was on him as he walked up on down the aisles of a very large class, nearly 30 students. They had been taught since their first summer session before fifth grade to "track" -- that is, look at -- their teachers or other students when they were speaking. The same thing happened in the schools I visited last week, including the KIPP STAR College Prep Charter School on West 123rd St. in Manhattan, the KIPP Infinity Charter School on West 133rd Street in Manhattan and the KIPP AMP Academy in Brooklyn. In each case, teachers, including principals who like Vance had their own classes, moved around their rooms. They smiled at students, showed excitement with the lesson and called on everyone in class.

And when that did not happen, Levin -- now 35 and visiting each school as superintendent of KIPP's growing New York cluster -- made a mental note and talked to the principal about how to help that teacher improve. After several minutes in one classroom, he winched when he stepped into the hall. The instructor's tone was too didactic for him and, he thought, for the students. "I hate that kind of fake teacher voice," he said. "You should be having a conversation with the kids."

Besides Vance, the principals in New York are KIPP STAR's Maggie Runyan-Shefa, 32, a George Washington University graduate with an interest in politics; KIPP AMP's Ky Adderley, 30, a former Georgetown University track star whose uncle Herb is in the NFL Hall of Fame; and KIPP Infinity's Joe Negron, 26, a Harvard graduate who would like to teach Advanced Placement chemistry at the KIPP high school Levin plans to open in 2007.

All four acknowledged they had much to learn about running a school but thought their inexperience was offset by their ability to put in the long days necessary under the KIPP system.

Viviana Pyle in the KIPP human resources department surveyed all 45 KIPP principals around the country for me and found that their average age was 32. Two-thirds of them were recruited from the ranks of the Teach For America program, which places young teachers in low-income neighborhood schools with only a summer of training right after they graduate from college. Each KIPP principal goes through a year-long training program funded by GAP clothing store founders Doris and Don Fisher and federal grants. It includes classes in business management at the University of California at Berkeley and work in other KIPP schools, or schools similar to KIPP in their emphasis on raising achievement for low-income, inner-city kids.

Since Winston first visited Levin's school in 1997, she has become his guardian angel in navigating the rough currents of the New York City school bureaucracy. She had created her own successful public middle school in the early 1990s, raising achievement for Harlem students through a program in which they wrote, published and sold their own books, and so she knew the pitfalls of success. She is retired now and works as a consultant for KIPP. She does for the new crop of principals what she did for Levin. She gives advice and keeps spirits up. Her morale-boosting techniques include bringing Runyan-Shefa coffee at crucial moments and listening with an understanding smile over a steak dinner at a Columbus Avenue restaurant as the three male principals, plus Levin, complain in vivid terms about what their long hours are doing to their personal lives.

The largest KIPP schools have no more than 320 students, just the right size, it seems to me, for a young principal with desire and determination. Most urban schools are much bigger than that, which forces the principal to spend nearly all of his or her time dealing with adults, rather than students. The job becomes very political, and age and experience become more important.

If the Gateses, the Fishers and other educational entrepreneurs succeed in their efforts to create a new era of small schools, then many more principals will be needed, and the good young ones will be in demand.

Winston said she is not sure how long her young clients can keep up their current pace. Young people of talent are drawn to KIPP principalships, but like professional athletes or rock stars or theoretical physicists, there may be a limit to how long they can stay on the top of their game. Winston said she thought after six years or so they might need a different kind of job.

"They have no personal life," she said. "But they learn so much and get so much done early that the future for them is very, very bright. And they get a certain amount of the need to give out of their system."

I asked why it was good to shed some of that need to give. "Because giving too much can be as unhealthy as not giving at all. It is an excuse. It is sometimes easier to give than it is to take. You have to ask yourself: why am I not taking, how do I feel about me, what does that say about me?" she said.

Eventually, Winston said, the young principals need to find a balance in their lives so they don't become bitter about what they are missing. Much of their power as educators comes from showing their students how much they love what they are doing. "It will never serve to have people in these positions who don't like themselves," Winston said.

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