From the Court to the Classroom

By Michael Horne, Miles Family Fellow, KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth

I am a Boston Celtics fan. Yes, I live in Dallas. But prior to moving to Dallas, I lived in Boston for five years and for many Bostonians, supporting the Celtics is as much a rite of passage as it is a hobby. Seventeen championships, luminaries of the likes of the indomitable Bill Russell…the Boston Celtics have firmly established their presence in the pantheon of sports dynasties.  But beyond the Celtics’ glitz and glamour, my admiration of the Celtics has less to do with the championships they have achieved, but the reason why and the way they have become successful; particularly as in recent times they have succeeded where many teams have faltered.

In 2007, Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics, was faced with an extraordinary opportunity. On his roster were three premier basketball players—forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and shooting guard Ray Allen. These three players were dominant in their own rite, destined for the Hall of Fame. Yet, despite their sports acumen, prior to coming together as Celtics, each player was unable to win a NBA championship. And therein lies the challenge. Basketball is a team sport—a domain where the dynamics of winning (and losing) is predicated less on individual competencies than on the meticulous collaboration of five players who work to enhance their collective abilities.

Faced with this predicament, Doc Rivers did what many great leaders have done—he set forth to transform the Celtics into an organization that leveraged the players’ individual talents while enhancing the team’s collective ability. To begin, Rivers drew on the African principle of Ubuntu—I am because you are.  After practices and before games, players would huddle together, raising their hands and echoing ubuntu—a word which epitomized a team that would rise and fall together. Moving beyond rhetoric, Rivers then developed and implemented systems or plays that would operationalize the culture of “us”. The result was a Celtics’ championship added to a legacy of sports excellence.

So what does a basketball tale have to do with education?  The story of the 2008 Celtics provides us with a leadership narrative that informs the very work that I and countless KIPP school leaders and schools engage in each day.  You see nationally, just 8% of children in the bottom income quartile graduate from college.  And yet, across the KIPP network, students—85 % of whom are eligible for free and reduced priced lunch—are making it to and through college at four times the national average of their peers.  Like the Celtics, to overcome challenges, school leaders must think and behave differently.

At the onset of the 2011-12 academic year, KIPP TRUTH Academy (KTA) (where I am a Dean and Miles Family Fellow) developed a goal to dramatically enhance students’ reading abilities and interest across the school.  Many KTA students arrive in 5th grade 2 to 3 grade levels behind in reading—a gap that has negative implications for high school completion. While KTA ELA teachers believe all children will learn, I quickly realized that we would only meet our goal if we truly practiced the spirit of Ubuntu and became a team.

To do this, we have adopted three strategies:

1. Develop a shared vision: The ELA teachers each have individual perspectives and conceptions of reading. However, the ability for our all of our students to achieve measurable reading growth requires a coherent and aligned vision for reading as students progress from 5th-8th grade.

2. Promote a reading culture: At KIPP TRUTH Academy—where 100% of our students are Black or Latino and 90% are eligible for free and/or reduced priced lunch—it is important that our scholars develop an identity that is inextricably linked to reading as a tool to build a better tomorrow.  Publically celebrating students’ reading growth and holding reading competitions are just some of the ways that we intend to embody the transformative power of reading.

3. Implement coherent systems:  Content team meetings have become a time when teachers work collaboratively to achieve their goal.  Devoting dedicated time to build collective content knowledge or focus on issues of practice, have helped teachers develop a coherent strategy to support student achievement.

Just like the Celtics, KIPP schools and school leaders are tirelessly overcoming challenges.  And although the work of transforming an organization is difficult, the alternative is equally difficult.  Therefore from sunup to sundown, big and little KIPPsters are quieting the naysayers, led by the belief that as one team and family, they will build a better tomorrow.