As the co-founders of KIPP, the best-known and most successful public charter school network in the country, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg have devoted most of their energies to leading the KIPP schools in their regions — New York City for Levin and Houston for Feinberg.
Their duties are about to change. Both have decided to leave their day-to-day work as local superintendents and devote their time to broader KIPP and public education issues. Their energy, imagination and prestige will continue to influence KIPP policy, but their successors as superintendents will have challenging jobs because of the importance of New York and Houston to KIPP.
When Feinberg and Levin began KIPP as a fifth grade of 49 students housed at Garcia Elementary School in Houston in 1994, Feinberg was 25 and Levin was 24, with only two years of teaching experience each. As I explain in my book “Work Hard. Be Nice,” they learned fast, with much advice from veteran teachers Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith. Their formula of longer school days, required summer school, teamwork, imaginative teaching, strict rules of behavior and much singing and travel was so successful that Gap clothing store magnates Doris and Don Fisher gave them $15 million in 2000 to create a national network.
This summer, KIPP (once short for Knowledge Is Power Program, but now just KIPP) has 109 schools with 32,000 students in 20 states and the District. Several independent studies have shown KIPP students making significant gains in achievement, in some cases raising low-income minority children from levels typical of inner city schools to those of suburban schools.
Feinberg and Levin are still 6-foot-3 dynamos, but are more diplomatic than they were in their 20s, when they pushed school district officials hard to give them space and freedom to innovate. Feinberg is 42. Levin is 41. Each is married with two children.
“I don’t want to be just a great educator and superintendent,” Feinberg said. “I want to be a great man and father and husband.”
Both will remain on the national KIPP board and on the regional KIPP boards that are responsible for the schools in Houston and New York City. Richard Barth, based in New York City, will remain chief executive officer of the national KIPP Foundation. Levin and Feinberg were instrumental in the selection of Barth, a witty charter school veteran. They appear to work together well. Feinberg and Levin said they will concentrate on innovation, leadership development, teacher training, fundraising, college partnerships and facilities.
“I am most excited about focusing on the way we are training our leaders, training our teachers and the way we are teaching our kids,” Levin said. “I will have a chance to dig in and rethink and reevaluate every aspect of our training and teaching.”
Levin has been active in the creation of a new teacher training program at Hunter College previously called Teacher U, recently renamed the Relay Graduate School of Education. It is designed to give teacher candidates many more hours working in urban schools so they can be ready to raise the achievement of low-income students. It was started by KIPP and two other successful charter school networks, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools. Levin teaches in the program.
KIPP New York has eight schools — four middle, three elementary and one high school — with 2,700 students. It plans to have a total of 11 schools by 2015. The new leader of the original KIPP Academy New York is Frank Corcoran, a musically-oriented, award-winning math teacher who was Levin’s roommate and only staff member in the early KIPP years.
The New York KIPP schools have unusual importance because the city is a flash point of conflict between charter schools and the United Federation of Teachers local of the American Federation of Teachers. The UFT tried unsuccessfully to unionize one KIPP school and suffered a massive resignation of teachers from the union at another KIPP school as a consequence. Levin and Feinberg had a previous AFT president on their advisory board. They have met periodically with AFT President Randi Weingarten, but tensions remain.
Asked how he was getting along with the unions, Levin said after a pause, “We are working on the nature of our relationship.”
Levin has two sons, Max, 2, and Zachariah, 8 months. His wife, Nikki Chase, whom he met at a speed-dating event in a New York restaurant, has her own marketing consultancy in addition to playing the cello and caring for their children.
Feinberg has a son Gus, 6, and a daughter Abadit, 1, whom his wife, son and he are bringing home from Ethiopia this month. Feinberg said his wife and father-in-law plan to drive the two kids from New York to Houston, with a stop in Nashville. There, Abadit, getting a taste of life as a Feinberg, will be introduced to a few thousand teachers at the KIPP annual summer conference.
Feinberg’s wife, Colleen Dippel, was the best math teacher on the staff of his original middle school in Houston. She had previously worked for the Teach For America organization, the program where Levin and Feinberg met in 1992. She has set up a new organization, Families Empowered. It works with parents of children on the wait list at KIPP and other high-performing schools, showing them how they can improve the schools their children are attending as it helps them seek out other options as well.
Feinberg’s replacement in Houston will take over the largest KIPP region by far. Feinberg’s original growth plan, worked out with several local business executives, was to raise $100 million, use that to borrow $500 million, and have 42 schools by 2020. The financial market meltdown reduced the amount they were able to raise to $70 million, and dropped their borrowing to $100 million, but that is still enough, Feinberg said, to get to 23 schools with 12,000 students by 2015. They now have 20 schools with 7,800 students. Feinberg said the new goal is to have 42 schools by 2025.
KIPP focuses heavily on recruiting and training the best principals, often former KIPP teachers. Its efforts have been praised, with other organizations sending their candidates through the KIPP principal training process. But Feinberg, a hard grader, said he gives KIPP only a B-minus so far in leadership building. “We are not out-driving our headlights,” he said, “but we are right at the edge. We don’t want to force the development too fast of great young teachers to become leaders.” In the best circumstances, he said, it takes a rookie KIPP teacher at least seven years to develop the skill necessary to run a school.
Both Levin and Feinberg love to drive. Their friendship solidified in 1992 when they took Levin’s car from the Teach For America training institute in Los Angeles to their first teaching jobs in Houston. They drive around their regions each day, visiting as many schools as possible. They say they will continue to do that in their new jobs, but there is a problem.
As Feinberg and his friends readily admit, he is not good on the road. After several speeding tickets, he agreed to have a driver take him around while he worked his cellphone and laptop in the back seat.
Feinberg said his new job has no budget for a driver, however. He will be back behind the wheel. He said he has matured and will be more careful. His new duties make it unnecessary for him to give advice on the phone to an assortment of KIPP principals while steering the car, so it should work out fine.