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Straight Up Conversation: KIPP Chief of Policy and Public Affairs Richard Buery

By Rick Hess — June 14, 2018 11 min read
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Richard Buery was recently named the Chief of Policy and Public Affairs for the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). KIPP, of course, is one of the nation’s largest and most influential charter school networks. Before joining KIPP, Richard served as Deputy Mayor to Bill de Blasio in New York City, heading up the mayor’s “Pre-K for All” initiative. Since earning his law degree from Yale, Richard has also taught fifth grade, founded the iMentor college-access program, and helped found the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School in the Bronx. I recently had the chance to talk with Richard about his new role, the charter school landscape, and how KIPP is approaching policy and public affairs in the Trump era.

Rick Hess: Richard, first off, congratulations. But I’m curious about what prompted you to leave de Blasio’s team in order take on this new role?

Richard Buery: First and foremost, I’ve been a long-time admirer of KIPP from the time I first visited the original KIPP Academy in the South Bronx two decades ago. I grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, a neighborhood much like the South Bronx. It’s a predominantly black-and-brown, poor and working-class community. Because my mother was a public school teacher for 37 years, she knew how to navigate the system to get my sisters and me into excellent public schools. In East New York, that meant not going to my zoned schools. Those opportunities made all of the difference in my life. In this new role, I want to help bring opportunity to children in neighborhoods like East New York: by growing quality options like KIPP; by collaborating with district schools; by listening to students and parents about what our young people need to be successful; and by connecting public schools and communities to the resources they need to address the many challenges children in high-poverty neighborhoods face.

RH: What does being the Chief of Policy and Public Affairs at KIPP involve, anyway?

RB: Functionally, I supervise government affairs, communications, and marketing. I also lead our external impact team, which includes engaging KIPP’s more than 30,000 alumni and partnering with school districts and other charter management organizations. Fundamentally, I see three key aspects to my role. First, I want KIPP to do a better job of telling our story to parents, community leaders, and policymakers. Second, I want KIPP to advance policies that expand KIPPsters’ ability to lead choice-filled lives. Third, I want KIPP to build more and stronger relationships with local, state, and national partners, including those that have historically been skeptical of charter schools.

RH: Can you say a few words describing KIPP circa 2018?

RB: There are 209 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia educating 90,000 students on their path to and through college. We believe that high expectations, excellent academics, safe and structured schools, empowered teachers and leaders, and an emphasis on both academics and character development are the foundation for student success. As of fall 2016, KIPP students’ four-year college completion rate is 38 percent, which is above the national average of 36 percent and more than three times higher than the average for students of similar economic backgrounds.

RH: KIPP is probably the most famed of the “No Excuses” charter schools—known for a culture of high expectations and strict discipline. This model has obviously generated controversy in some quarters. Can you talk about the KIPP approach, what you make of the pushback, and how you’re thinking about these tensions going forward?

RB: These are really difficult questions. Our school leaders grapple daily with how to keep students safe, happy, and engaged in learning. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but one of the things I love about KIPP is our willingness to tackle big questions and make changes when necessary. When KIPP was founded in 1994, one of our original mottos was “No Excuses.” This phrase referred to the idea that KIPP teachers and staff would not make excuses about their own ability to ensure student learning. However, over the years it became associated with a strict approach to student discipline. Certainly, the mantra was not meant to imply that the challenges our students face outside the classroom—evils like poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia—are not substantial barriers to learning. Over the past decade, many KIPP schools have been shifting their strategies, moving towards cooperative approaches that help prevent conflict and restore relationships while addressing each student’s social-emotional needs. For example, we are starting to see KIPP schools implement restorative justice models, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area and now spreading across the country.

RH: As your title makes clear, KIPP sees itself as having a role to play when it comes to advocacy and policy. Can you talk a bit about how the KIPP leadership thinks about that role?

RB: Early in its history, KIPP believed our role was simply to lead great schools and leave advocacy efforts to others. Over the years, we have rethought that position. Today, we are striving to lead great schools and to advocate. With our national scale and experience operating schools in both rural and urban communities, we believe KIPP is uniquely positioned to effect systemic change for young people of great promise but little privilege. In determining our priorities, we take into account the voices and experience of our students, families, and alumni. For example, for the past two years, KIPP has surveyed our alumni in college about their experiences on campus. This has given us tremendous insight into the challenges they face, which in turn drives our policy and advocacy agenda. We’ve engaged on issues ranging from expanding school nutrition programs, to investing in evidence-based approaches to K-12 education, to supporting first-generation college students, to advocating for Dreamers.

RH: Given that, what’s on the KIPP policy agenda right now?

RB: Right now, we’re focused on four key issues. First is expanding funding for the Charter Schools Program, which can help open new charters to serve the more than one million names on charter school waiting lists. Additionally, investments like IDEA and Title I form a critical foundation of support for low-income students and those receiving special education services. Second, across our schools, guidance counselors work with thousands of graduating seniors and their families each year to identify colleges that are a good match for them—academically, socially, and financially. Students and families frequently lack the information they need to make these decisions, however, and clear, transparent data about college tuition, graduation rates, and employment prospects can help students choose the best colleges and majors, and increase their chances of completion. Third, we need to increase financial aid. In our 2016 KIPP Alumni Survey, 60 percent of our alumni in college reported worrying about running out of food, while 40 percent said they have missed meals to pay for books, school fees, and other expenses. Even just a few hundred dollars in financial aid can make the difference between a low-income student earning a degree or dropping out. And fourth is advocating for a permanent legislative solution on DACA that will allow Dreamers to live, study, and work legally in the only country they’ve ever called home, as many of our students are Dreamers whose lives are in limbo. Though we do not maintain information regarding the immigration status of our students, we estimate that in some of the communities where KIPP operates schools, as many as one in three students may be undocumented.

RH: Speaking of DACA, KIPP has issued a variety of articles and statements on this. Can you talk a bit about KIPP’s position on DACA, and how you approach taking positions on sensitive social issues?

RB: One of the things that really drew me to KIPP was seeing how the organization took a strong public stand on DACA. In the last 18 months, KIPP has led multiple delegations to meet with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. We have been joined by former U.S. Secretaries of Education, college presidents, business leaders, education leaders, and advocates from both parties. We’ve fundraised to help our alumni and staff renew their DACA status and seek legal counsel; hosted members of Congress at our schools; held press conferences across the country; contributed op-eds; submitted coalition letters to the Trump administration and congressional leadership; gathered testimonies from KIPP alumni and staff to be read on the House and Senate floors; and hosted briefings with coalition partners. The real all-stars on our team continue to be the courageous Dreamers among our KIPP students, alumni, and staff who bravely shared their personal testimonies in meetings, interviews, op-eds, and social media posts. We are inspired by their courage.

RH: Historically, KIPP has long drawn on the support of both conservative charter school advocates and progressives who support its focus on serving low-income communities. How do you take positions on sensitive social issues without alienating some of your supporters—or is that even possible?

RB: Standing up for what’s right can be uncomfortable. Ideally, we wouldn’t lose friends by doing so, but we know there are always risks. As we’ve fought alongside Dreamers in recent months, we’ve made new allies across the political spectrum, including organizations like the LIBRE Initiative, UnidosUS, and FWD.us, as well as fellow educators spanning K-12 and higher education.

RH: All right. So, what’s one thing about KIPP that you wish more people knew?

RB: I wish people understood how much KIPP collaborates with district schools. For example, KIPP Delta is partnering with the Helena-West Helena and Lee County School Districts in Arkansas to offer “KIPP Through College” to two district high schools. KIPP Through College counselors support KIPP students in high school to select a college that fits their interests, and help KIPP alumni in college to navigate the academic, social, and financial challenges they might fact while persisting to graduation. This program has led to a 27-percent increase in college enrollment among graduating seniors from these schools. And beginning this summer, KIPP will partner with three school districts for a two-year pilot to increase college matriculation and completion.

RH: On that count, there are obvious tensions today between charters and traditional district schools. In your work with the de Blasio administration, you worked to build relationships between district and charter schools. Drawing on that, do you have any thoughts about how to better bridge the divide?

RB: We worked hard to build bridges, and I think we had great successes. We improved co-locations, promoted collaboration between district and charter schools, and included charter schools in key administration initiatives including Pre-K for All. But despite those successes, I often found the work frustrating. The level of hostility in these debates can be deeply counterproductive. Most of the people arguing want the same thing, but there is too little trust. So, instead of debating ideas, we accuse each other of not caring about children. I think we have to find ways to build this trust. That includes being honest. For example, we need to acknowledge the real challenges that districts with declining enrollments face as charters expand, the lack of diverse leadership in many charter school organizations, and the need for equitable admissions policies across all public schools. I think the way forward begins with taking others’ concerns seriously—and not assuming that differences in opinion are driven by differences in motives.

RH: In 2017’s CREDO analysis of charter management organizations, KIPP schools were found to have a broad positive impact on reading and math scores—especially compared to some of the jumbo-sized “super networks” which fared much worse. What is KIPP doing differently than some of these other networks, and what do you think these results mean for the charter sector and for charter policy?

RB: We believe there are five factors that set KIPP apart: high expectations, a focus on character, highly effective educators, safe and nurturing school environments, and our KIPP Through College program. The highly effective educators piece is one area that KIPP and other high-performing charter networks have excelled at, with many high-performing, nonprofit charters creating their own teacher and principal training programs. For our part, in 2008, KIPP teamed up with Achievement First and Uncommon Schools to create Teacher U, an innovative teacher training program modeled on effective instructional practices honed in our own schools. This program has since evolved into the Relay Graduate School of Education, a licensed and accredited graduate teacher training program. At current scale, Relay’s student body will impact over 400,000 students in pre-K through high school across the country.

RH: Last question: Last year, the press made much of the annual Education Next poll, which found a sharp decline in support for charter schools from the previous year, continuing a multi-year slide. What do you make of this? Do you think it’s cause for concern?

RB: At the end of the day, I don’t think most public school parents care whether their child goes to a district school or a charter school. They just want their child to go to a great school. As long as we continue to open and run excellent schools, collaborate with district and charter management organization partners, and effectively communicate the work we are doing, I am not too worried about short-term shifts in polls one way or the other.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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