Problem-solvers, optimists wanted: A Q&A with KIPP Journey’s Hannah Powell Tuney

There is no harder job than running a successful school building for high-poverty students; nor a more important job. Yet, there are school leaders across the state and the nation who do it day-in and day-out, and too few get recognized for their great work. We are fortunate that some of these leaders work in the charter schools that Fordham sponsors and it is our privilege to tell a little bit of their stories and the impact they are having on students in Ohio. This Q&A with Hannah Powell Tuney, the executive director of KIPP: Central Ohio, is the third of our seven-part series on school leadership. (Please see our previous Q&As with Dr. Glenda Brown, Andy Boy, and Judy Hennessey.) KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, is a national network of high-performing, urban charter schools. KIPP Journey Academy, located in Columbus, is Ohio’s first KIPP charter school.  Powell Tuney leads KIPP Journey, which serves 300 students, 91 percent black and 100 percent economically disadvantaged. In 2011-12, the school received a B (“Effective”) rating from the state.

Hannah Powell Tuney became the leader at Columbus’ KIPP Journey Academy when she was just 27. It was December, and the school had been open for only three months. Her predecessor had abruptly resigned.

Less than three years later, in June 2011, Powell Tuney was chosen to direct KIPP Central Ohio’s efforts to grow from just one school to five. The 31-year-old Springfield, OH, native and a Teach for America alum has led KIPP Journey as it has grown from a class of 60 5th-graders to four grades with 320 students.

Graded a “B” on the 2011-12 state report card, KIPP Journey is housed in the former Linden Park Elementary School. In 2012, it was one of 14 schools nationally to win a “silver” EPIC award from New Leaders for New Schools, which recognizes notable student achievement gains in high-poverty schools.

Powell Tuney, who majored in communications at Wittenberg University, said KIPP Journey’s success shows that “it’s never too late for our kids.”

The following are edited excerpts from an interview with Powell Tuney.

Q: You’ve been involved in two school “turnaround” efforts – one in Dayton at the now-defunct Omega School of Excellence and arguably at KIPP Journey Academy. What have you learned?

A: At KIPP Journey Academy, I really tried to understand who the school was, what was in place, and what areas needed improvement. I wanted to develop a very clear path of what key things could be accomplished. I wanted to make that vision tangible. I’ve been in the education reform movement for a decade. Overall, the statistics for our kids are still the same or worse. That’s infuriating.

Q: What’s the growth plan?

A: In the next decade, we want to go from serving 300 to 2,000 students in grades K-12. A new elementary school will open in 2014. At minimum, we’d like the KIPP region in Columbus to include two elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. KIPP nationally would like to grow deeper rather than wider. Right now, KIPP has 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. We want to expand in the cities where we are.

Q: What are you looking for in a teacher or principal?

A: We’re looking for people who have a track record of leadership. How have you moved children? What’s the evidence? Can you demonstrate being organized? I’m looking for people who are problem-solvers. How have you persevered in the face of challenges? And, quite frankly, we’re looking for people who are optimistic.

Q: What’s your favorite question to ask applicants?

A: “What do people who don’t like you say about you?” It’s really important to be reflective and self-aware. I’m often able to get really raw answers with that one. Sometimes I say a statistic about kids and ask, “What does that mean to you?” The answers can be really telling. I’m trying to get at the heart of what motivates the person. I’m looking for people’s mindset.  KIPP embodies a “no excuses” philosophy. So we make decisions that are informed by data. I’m always trying to figure out someone’s predisposition about data. Do they see it as a compliance thing, as information that they have to collect, or will they try to understand data and use it to inform their instructional choices.

Q: KIPP and charter schools generally rely heavily on young teachers. Is the KIPP model – or any model – that demands so much of teachers – sustainable? Can people keep up the pace over a 30- or 35-year career?

A: Attracting strong talent and keeping strong talent is my business model. The person opening our elementary schools has his own family. When you look at KIPP and Teach for America, the people are relatively young. But that’s changing. The question is, “What do our kids need?” Sustainability is important to me, but we have to deliver a quality education. For instance, we believe in having more time with students. There are no shortcuts, and that requires a certain level of intensity. I want our kids to have teachers who are great people and who live full lives. This is something that’s definitely on my mind. We’re not going to grow from 300 to 2,000 kids without the right people.

Q: What’s the average age at KIPP Journey?

A: They’re largely under age 35. The average years of teaching experience is six.

Q: How are things going with Columbus City Schools?

A: I think it’s a relationship that’s evolving. We’re in a Columbus City Schools building that we lease. We have a lot of opportunity for sharing best practices.

Q: What don’t you want your students to know about you?

A: I would like them not to know how many shortcuts I took in my high-school math classes. I took a lot of them, too many.

Q: Do you ever think that you didn’t have enough time in the classroom before you became an administrator?

A: That’s a good question. I think the value of being in a classroom and teaching are really important. Sure, it would have been great to have had more years in the classroom. I continue to learn from all of our teachers. I’m really grateful to work with great teachers and to be creating a framework to reach more kids.

Q: What do you miss about the classroom?

A: The culture. My time in Teach for America was so transformative. It was so powerful and so hard. It was a really rich learning experience for me.

Q: What was the most important thing you’ve learned from a student?

A: One 7th-grade student I had was experiencing a ton of non-academic barriers outside of school that were difficult and emotional. It was not just one thing, but a pattern. Yet she had this incredible hope and this beautiful way of articulating her dream for her future – not in a fluffy way, but in a clear, determined, gritty way. She taught me so much about what it means to persevere, to be optimistic.

Q: What was the lowest point in your career?

A: After two weeks of being in Teach for America in Philadelphia, I was seeing what I had been reading about. I got really angry about the inequities, yet really inspired about what was possible. I was meeting these 9- and 10-year-olds who had been cheated. The achievement gap was just so big. I was understanding the statistics and the rhetoric in a personal way – and what it meant for these kids.

Q: Did you think about quitting?

A: Absolutely. I called my dad and told him that I should have gone to law school. I said I’m working so hard, and I’m not seeing gains. I was pretty downtrodden. He said, “Hannah, how selfish of you. You’ve been there for a couple months. Change is going to happen from showing up every day. Change isn’t going to happen because you want it to.” He said, “If not you, who’s going to do it?”

Q: Is there anything you would change about the KIPP model? Is there anything you’re reconsidering about it?

A: Every KIPP school is different. One of the pillars is focusing on results. We’re getting much better at tracking data. KIPP-national is putting more emphasis on the Common Core and how we can come together to learn from each other and really leverage the power of the network.

Q: KIPP Journey has an eclectic mix of extracurriculars. What’s the favorite among students?

A: The step team, the basketball team, West-African drumming and dance. One of the things that we tell students is to find your passion. I want our kids to be exposed to a lot of things they could be passionate about. That’s why we’ve invested really heavily in after-school programming and character education. It’s fundamental to what we do.

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