Getting Smart Podcast | Mike Feinberg on Opening Great #NewSchools

EdLeaders, Leadership

Twenty four years ago, Mike Feinberg was a Teach for America fellow in Houston with an idea for a more successful middle school program. With co-founder David Levin, Feinberg sought and received permission from the Houston superintendent to run a small pilot program called Knowledge is Power Program, and the highly successful KIPP network was born.

Now that KIPP has opened 183 schools and serves more than 70,000 students, Feinberg and colleagues have learned some lessons about opening great schools. The first one goes all the way back to the origin story: “pilot the idea if you can.” Now in vogue, the idea of prototyping is a great way to test an instructional model.

The Great #NewSchools project, sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, provides expert advice on the post-approval pre-opening phase of new school development.

Feinberg agrees with Scott Benson, NewSchools Venture Fund, who said, “Start early – give yourself time to explore, design, seek feedback and build support among the community and funders.”

“When I think back to the history of KIPP, I think the one thing that set us up for success was that first we were a program for a whole year,” Feinberg said. “So we basically had a whole year of runway to work on what we wanted to see happen before we started…we started early and we started small.”

For KIPP, starting early means getting the right leader on board. In fact, KIPP won’t open a school without a great leaders at the helm. “Good schools have good teaching and more of it,” said Feinberg. “That’s a product of great leadership.”

Feinberg said getting the culture right is the most important variable in opening a new schools. “Great teaching and learning is built on a foundation of great culture.”

Aaron Brenner, who opened the first KIPP elementary school, said, “Teaching and living the values should be intentional, explicit and full of joy. Building on cultural alignment, leadership and teachers should plan lessons that teach the values in an explicit, intentional and joyful way.”

Feinberg agreed that culture isn’t a behavior code, it’s integrated into everything you do and say. “It’s not a set of expectations. It’s team. It’s family. It’s the joy of both,” said Feinberg.

Brenner is taking these hard-won new school lessons and sharing them with low-income communities through the 1 World Network of Schools.

KIPP schools have the opportunity to create shape their own culture and practices but they all seek a high level of execution.

Feinberg said, “Remember that countless seen and unseen details are the difference between mediocre and magnificent. The biggest difference between those schools (and other organizations) that succeed and those that fail is the ability to execute on the plan written down on paper, making course corrections as necessary, but always executing.”

Feinberg said a short and sweet vision and mission that’s easy for everyone to understand helps promote alignment and execution.

Like former Houston superintendent Terry Grier, Feinberg said investing in hiring and onboarding is key. New KIPP leaders serve a one year fellowship to study school operations in detail.

Feinberg said it’s important to balance improvement and innovation, particularly as more schools are introducing technology and new blended learning models.

He remains particularly interested in creating productive uses of time. “Given the need to spend a lot of time on instruction as well, give yourself room for this by having more instructional time during the day, week and year.”

For more great advice from Mike, check out this podcast:

See the #NewSchools series:


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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

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