Deborah Kenny is the founder of Harlem Village Academies, a chain of charter schools based in one of Manhattan’s poorest neighbourhoods.
Kenny’s book does not spare the reader some shocking statistics; in 2008 in the area of Harlem where she proposed opening her first school, 78% of 8th graders were failing reading and 87% were failing Maths; students in their catchment area had only an 8% chance of attending university; and in 2002 only 16% of 8th grade Harlem students could read at grade level.
HVA was founded on a simple principal, and one that many educators would endorse: what would I want for my own children? Kenny observed teachers in countless charter schools, and although she saw some flashy lessons, for example fun ways to remember Mathematics formulae, she felt that she wouldn’t want her own students to be taught like that: she wanted her kids to love Maths. Similarly, HVA was set up with no system of rewards – instead, Kenny wanted students to behave because they wanted to learn. Succeeding academically was the reward.
What also marks HVA out is its emphasis on teaching and cultivating brilliant teachers. As a teacher myself, I find this hard to argue with. Teachers need to be granted freedom and trust to carry out their duties to the best of their capabilities. Kenny even recognises this in herself, noting that while she had fully trusted her “rock-star teachers” one of the initial failings of the schools was that she had found it harder to grant those same freedoms to struggling teachers.
Yet Kenny redeems herself even in this, describing teachers who struggled in her schools and how she challenged herself to not give up on them, instead working collaboratively to help them to improve. This is surely the dream in education: we have all become teachers for similar, value-laden reasons, yet often other factors (both within ourselves and outreaching contexts) contribute to the success or lack of success of our classes. Rather than writing teachers off, Kenny’s programme of formative assessment of observed lessons and team planning to improve delivery ensures that no teacher is left behind.
I love this idea, for it helps teachers everywhere on the spectrum. The most “outstanding” teachers I have the privilege of working with impress me everyday with the simple fact that they focus not on what they have done, but how they can improve it in the future; including improving outstanding lessons.
Rather than a summative grade, which could arguably encourage coasting, surely a more effective way of keeping teachers engaged is surely working together to improve on a curriculum or lesson plan, acknowledging greatness but also building on it.
(HVA’s website, which is worth a visit, states that: “The freedom we enjoy at HVA is guided by purposeful collaboration with the rest of the team, so that we become better teachers and leaders every day. HVA is a lively laboratory of co-planning, co-grading, and co-observations followed up with genuine conversations. There’s no formula or magic bullet; just old-fashioned, hard questions like, “How could that section of the lesson have been more engaging?” As educators, we love the feeling of continually improving our craft.”)
What I enjoyed also about this book was the personal touch. To begin with, I was confused by Kenny’s inclusion of her very personal family and faith inclusions, however as the book went on I understood their importance to her charter school vision.
Moreover, these personal elements mirrored the personal dream of the schools as a place where professionals are also friends. Kenny’s warm love for her teachers shines through the book, as much as her frankly expressed love of her students.
The bottom line of this book is that we need to be ambitious when it comes to our children’s futures, and we need to face up to the fact that what works in the short term doesn’t always mean the education we would want for our own children. Children from low-income homes are all of our responsibility; they are all our children, and we need to build a school system that reflects that.