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Born to Rise: One woman's mission to reform education

In a new book, the founder of Harlem Village Academies recounts how she set out to prove that a good school can turn any kid around. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

By Shoshana Guy
NBC News

In the weeks after her husband died of leukemia, leaving her with three small children to raise, Deborah Kenny sought solace in books.  

“After he died I, like most people, couldn't sleep at night and so I started reading,” said Kenny.  

Of all the books she read during those sleepless nights, it was the one written by a doctor who survived a concentration camp that changed the trajectory of her life.

“In ‘Man's Search for Meaning,’ [author] Viktor Frankl had this one line in the book where he said, ‘We had to teach the despairing men that it's not about what life has to offer you but what is life asking of you,’” said Kenny, 48. “That was the thing that uplifted me, because I thought, ‘Well, life is asking something of me.  I have to do something.’" 

What Kenny did was launch some of the most successful schools in New York City.  Her nearly 10-year journey to establish Harlem Village Academies is chronicled in her new book, “Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching their Highest Potential.

As she grappled with how to create great schools Kenny also read management guides such as Peter Drucker’s “Management Challenges for the 21st Century.” Drucker's philosophy was that workers who are told exactly what to do stay incompetent. The key to success, she decided, was to create a culture that empowered teachers.

Kenny, who has a Ph.D. in education and a background in children’s publishing, took a job with Edison, a for-profit chain of charter and contract schools. But the administration was in charge of the design of the schools and everything from the curriculum to the daily schedule was pre-determined. That vision worked against her belief that in order to have highly successful schools the teachers needed to be in the driver’s seat.  So she quit her job at Edison and lived off of her emergency savings while she tried to get funding for the charter school she dreamed of starting in Harlem.

Harlem Village Academies, the brainchild of educator Deborah Kenny and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have become a success story in a sea of failing schools in New York City. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams talks to some of the school's students about their favorite teachers and about how their education at Harlem Village Academies differs from their previous schools.

After roughly a year of hustling day and night to make it happen Kenny made in-roads with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but she found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

“There was this Catch-22 because in order to get a charter in New York State you have to have a certain amount of funding,” said Kenny, who lives in Manhattan. “But in order to get the funding the Gates Foundation needed us to have the charter.” Then, in a made-for-TV moment, everything came through at the last minute, and in September 2003 Harlem Village Academies’ first middle school opened its doors.

Almost immediately Kenny established the teacher-driven culture she had always envisioned for her schools.

Giving teachers freedom, and holding them accountable

“You can't give people complete freedom unless at the end of that they're held accountable,” said Kenny.  “When I say freedom, I mean they choose their curriculum.  They make decisions about the teaching methods.  They make decisions about school-wide policies too.”

Charter schools, which receive some public funding but operate outside of the public school system, have been a source of controversy in education circles but Kenny says that their ability to hold teachers accountable is essential to success.  

“Only charter schools are allowed to hold teachers accountable,” said Kenny.  “And only when you hold teachers accountable can you give them complete freedom.  Only by giving teachers freedom do you attract the best to the profession.  So all schools need to have those conditions.  I don't care if you don't call it charter, but all schools need to function like that in order to attract the best people and keep them happy and make them passionate about their job.”

Many teachers at Harlem Village Academies say the collaborative supportive culture is in stark contrast to their experiences at other schools. Michele Scuillo, who teaches fifth grade non-fiction reading, worked at a public school right around the corner before joining the Harlem Village Academies team.  

“I had difficult students, I had difficult parents and just didn't have any kind of a support system,” said Sciullo.  “And I felt like this cannot be it, this cannot be what people do for 30 years.  So I was ready to leave teaching.” But today Sciullo says she is at the top of her game and she credits her fellow teachers with helping her get there.

Kenny says that being accountable for the success of the students means that teachers are pushed to teach for depth and comprehension and not just for the test.

“The focus on teacher quality is that there's too much emphasis now being put on the state test,” said Kenny.  “We're going to dumb down our expectations if we evaluate teachers only by the state test.”

'Our kids have so much potential'

Many of the students at Harlem Village Academies enter the fifth grade several grade levels behind in math and reading. But according to the school’s website, 100 percent of the students who scored a level one in reading (illiteracy) when they entered the school advanced to level one (basic) or level three (proficient) on the New York State reading tests within one year. And in 2008, Harlem Village Academies students made history as the first class of eighth graders in Harlem history to achieve 100 percent passing on the state math test.  

“Our kids have so much potential.  And they just want somebody to believe in them,” said Kenny. “They're very young when they come here.  But a lot of people have discouraged them along the way.  And when you provide them with what every kid deserves, which is just, you know, love and respect, they give it right back to you.”

Kenny dream has steadily expanded. Today there are two middle schools and one high school and in September of this year the first elementary schools will open their doors. Last year the first class that entered the school in 2003 graduated from high school. Almost all of them are currently attending college.

“After graduation all of the kids came up and started thanking me and all their teachers,” said Kenny.  “It was pretty incredible to hear an 18-year-old boy come up and say, ‘You know, if it weren't for this school I wouldn't have made it.’ That was a pretty striking moment.”