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Work hard. Be nice.

Mike FeinbergCo-founder of the Knowledge is Power Programme (KIPP), Mike Feinberg, visited South Africa in February and was ‘blown away’ by the passion and determination of the LEAP students he met. But he was also devastated by the achievement gap, where only one in 100 black students graduate from university. Sophie Hobbs interviewed this educational inspiration for LEAP Voice.

When I first meet Mike Feinberg, it is after a riveting presentation he has just delivered to a small group of grant-makers, organised by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Millennium Trust. I found myself nodding vigorously through most of it and when Mike handed me his business card, it read “Work hard. Be nice.” and I thought: “if that’s the only thing I manage to teach my children…”

No short cuts

When I interview Mike a few days later before his “No Excuses Schools” conversation with Professor Jonathan Jansen and LEAP’s Executive Director, John Gilmour in Johannesburg, he explains that this is the underlying philosophy of KIPP: “Work hard. Be nice. I think if it’s the two things we teach children, then we’ve done our job. But we also need the academic skills to round it out, so that it is not hollow.”

The underlying premise is that there are no short cuts to teaching kids. We, as adults and educators, have to roll up our sleeves and get working.”

Dreams and aspirations

Mike Feinberg started KIPP in 1994 with fellow teacher Dave Levin by launching a public school in inner-city Houston, Texas. In 1995, the second KIPP Academy was established in the South Bronx. Thanks to support from Doris and Don Fisher (co-founders of Gap Inc), they now have 125 KIPP public schools across the United States. One of the striking aspects of the KIPP approach is their commitment to preparing every student to make it to and through university, countering the ‘not all children are cut-out for university’ argument.

“If we survey our learners,” says Mike, “and ask them what they want to be, most of what we hear from them requires university degrees. So if we want to help our kids pursue and achieve their dreams and aspirations, we must prepare them for university. “

“And if they don’t end up going to university for whatever reason, it will prepare them to make a decent life for themselves and their families.”

Results

This is quite a goal, particularly since KIPP accepts students regardless of prior academic record, conduct or socio-economic background and 87% of students are from low-income families. This is not an elitist academy, cherry picking the best students who would have probably made it to university anyway.

The ‘high expectation’ approach has paid off: 84% of KIPP students go on to university and KIPP’s university completion rate is five percentage points higher than the national average and four times the national rate of students from low-income communities[1].

School systems

KIPP is part of the United States’ charter school system – publicly funded but fully independent schools. This, asserts Mike, is key to creating choice for low-income families and challenging regular state schools to do better.

What we need are systems of schools, realising that one size does not fit all. The best role that government can play is to allow and oversee enough quality schools of different models to provide communities what they need and want for their children.”

Is this something that could work for us here in South Africa? LEAP and similar schools in the South African Extraordinary Schools Coalition are pushing for the creation of an alternative funding model based on a similar system. This is a ‘third tier’ funding model where government allows the money (the full value of what it would cost to educate the child in a state school) to follow the student into the school. Part of the reason for Mike’s visit is to explore this option for South Africa with practitioners as well as government.

Inspiring tragedy

An intervention in South Africa’s education system has never been more urgent: “We made a promise to our children in 1994,” says Professor Jansen at the ‘No Excuses Schools’ event on 7 February. “We dare not fail them.”

Mike Feinberg echoes this bitter-sweet sentiment when I ask him what his impression of South Africa has been: “There’s been a paradox that’s been going through my mind all week. My impression is of an inspiring tragedy.”

It’s a tragedy because if you look at the current results, just 1% of all black children are going to graduate from university. And when you visit some government schools, you see why it’s 1%!”

“But when you look at the children, they are beautiful and still have the same hopes and aspirations. So it’s also inspiring. They have fire in their belly and song in their hearts. If only the adults can find ways to help these children achieve their aspirations – then the sky is the limit for South Africa.”

Great teaching and more of it

I like the sound of that but I’m wondering just what we need to do to make this happen. “Well, what do we want?” says Mike, “We want learners to learn well. What is the key ingredient for this? It is great teaching and more of it. Easy to say, hard to do.”

“What can help great teaching to happen is the function of great leadership. Because horrible leadership will ensure it just never shows up.”

In our experience, the starting point is to somehow, some way, start schools of excellence – truly transformative, breakthrough schools – so that we have black children and poor children all learning at the same, if not better levels, than their peers.”

Mike pledges KIPP’s support for this effort. “Thankfully, because of generous philanthropists like the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation we have found ways to connect two sides of the planet and help educators learn to start and grow schools of excellence here in South Africa.”

Confidence and humility

Schools just like LEAP. “I got to walk around LEAP 1 and 2 in Pinelands with a few of the students,” says Mike. “And I was blown away by their maturity and their passion for what they want to do for themselves, their families and their countries.”

“It is great to see that LEAP is confident and celebrates what it’s doing well yet also remains humble enough to see every day as an opportunity to learn and grow and get better. Any successful school has to strike that balance between confidence and humility.”

For more about Mike Feinberg visit workhardbenice.org

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