Harriett Ball dies: Teacher who inspired KIPP charter schools was 64

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 12:40 AM

Harriett Ball, a well-known teacher trainer who inspired the most successful charter school network in the country, died Feb. 2 at a Houston Northwest Medical Center after a heart attack. She was 64.

A lively classroom performer with a rich sense of humor, the elementary school teacher stood 6 feet 1 inch tall and had a deep, vibrant alto voice. Most of her fame stemmed from the role she played in the creation of the Knowledge Is Power Program, now known as KIPP, which has grown to 99 schools in 20 states and the District.

She trained the KIPP co-founders, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, when they were novice members of the Teach For America program. She gave them a host of original songs, chants and games to encourage learning. They took the name of their network from her most popular chant:

"You gotta read, baby, read.

You gotta read, baby read.

The more you read, the more you know,

'Cause knowledge is power,

Power is money, and

I want it."

KIPP's initial fifth-through-eighth-grade public charter middle schools used some of Mrs. Ball's methods, her iron doctrine that all children will learn, and a longer school day and year to produce the largest gains in achievement ever seen in low-income children.

The founders say that would not have happened if Levin had not lied about a non-existent English as a second language certificate that got him his first teaching job in 1992 at Bastian Elementary School in southeast Houston.

Across the hall he met Mrs. Ball, the school's star teacher. She had developed what she called "disposable crutches," a stream of mnemonic chants that attached essential rules of grammar and mathematics to the brains of fourth-graders. They learned the words as easily as rap lyrics. The more they used them, the more they became second nature.

She showed Levin and Feinberg how to move quickly to quell any rebellion, protect children from teasing and motivate learning. Often she used a practiced urban lingo.

"You're not doing the work?" she said to one child. "You got three choices." She spoke slowly. "You . . . can . . . change . . . rooms. You . . . can . . . change . . . schools." Her pace quickened: "But don't nobody else want you but me."

"Or you can change your attitude and actions . . . because I'm not changing. . . . You gonna pick one. This ain't Burger King. You don't 'have it your way.' Change rooms, change schools, or you change."

She was particularly close to Levin, sometimes pointing at his curly hair and suggesting he was one of her children.

He begged her in 1995 to transfer with him to Feinberg's school, where they had permission to start the first KIPP class. She said she was comfortable at Bastian and would not move.

He tried again when he moved to the south Bronx to start a second KIPP school. She said she couldn't take the risk, as a single mother with four children and a mortgage. "You're young and can start over," she said. "I don't have that luxury."

She gave Levin and Feinberg permission to use her chants and methods as long as they promised to tell anyone who asked the name of the women they got them from. Mrs. Ball believed she got her inspirations from God. In 1996 she received what she considered divine guidance to vest her pension, borrow on her mortgage and start her own business helping other teachers improve.

In a statement, Levin and Feinberg said "KIPP would not exist without Harriett." Watching her, they said, "was akin to watching any genius in action - she made one of the world's most difficult endeavors seem effortless." KIPP schools, including seven in the District, have 27,000 students and are growing rapidly, particularly in Houston.

Harriett Jane Hill was born July 1, 1946, in Rosenberg, Tex. She received a teaching degree from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin and then taught in Austin and Houston for 35 years.

Her first and third marriages, to Paul Franks and Duke Lacal Johnson, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Herman Ball, was shot dead in 1991 while trying to protect his sister's car from a reckless driver.

Survivors include four children from her first marriage, Rochelle Franks of Houston, Pamela Franks of Austin, Paul Franks of Greenwood, Miss., and Priscilla Franks of Spring, Tex.; a brother, Hubert Hill of Houston; and nine grandchildren.

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