The Power of KIPP’s Story

Allison Shapiro at KIPP School Summit

By Allison Shapira, President, Global Public Speaking LLC

It was 9:00am on a Tuesday morning, and I was in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas. I was about to experience my first KIPP School Summit (KSS), the annual professional development summit for teachers and staff of KIPP public charter schools.

My experience with KIPP had been limited up until that point. As a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, I remember my classmates from the field of education talking about charter schools and education reform, and some of them had taught at KIPP schools. As an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, I had been teaching leadership and narrative in executive programs for current and aspiring principals and administrators in the DC Public School system (DCPS); I continue to be moved by the perseverance and personal dedication these individuals demonstrate in the face of daily challenges.

My path to teaching and coaching has been fairly unusual. By training, I’m an opera singer. But 10 years ago, I realized my operatic background made me an excellent public speaker and an even better coach. A year and a half ago, I moved to Washington, DC to take this steadily growing side business and launch it full-time. Now, I work with the federal government, private companies, and nonprofits, helping people find their voice and their courage to speak. One of my students from DCPS had recommended me to KIPP to lead a workshop on storytelling. Given KIPP’s mission, I knew there must be thousands of powerful stories to be told. I soon found out just how powerful they were.

Back inside the convention center in Houston, I walked into a cavernous room that was part stage, part stadium-style seating. I couldn’t tell if I was at a pep rally or a conference. As it turns out, I was at both.

In my black business suit and high heels, I felt out-of-place amid a colorful sea of matching T-shirts, each one proudly declaring affiliation with a particular KIPP school. With no idea of where to sit, I wandered around the chaos, taking it all in. Choosing a seat, I realized I had actually found the right place: the KIPP DC crowd. I immediately felt at home.

It’s hard to describe the overwhelming energy in the room when the opening session began. 6,500 people cheered as KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg kicked off the summit, highlighting the 20th anniversary of founding the first KIPP school. The people in the room were teachers, principals, non-instructional staff, and students – thousands of people all dedicated to the same goal and all speaking the same language.

Climb the mountain to and through college; team and family; power to lead. These were phrases that had real meaning to the people in the stands. These words connected with experiences and stories each person in the room had lived through. It was a connection that was palpable.

Throughout the opening session, we were amazed by one student performance after the other: dancing in our seats to the KIPP Tulsa 3D Drum Line and cheering along with the elementary school step team from KIPP LA.

Two things wowed me more than anything else.

First, the roll calls, when each KIPP school in attendance presented a short video about their school. Check out KIPP Philadelphia’s video here:

Some were funny, some were cool, some were moving, and all were authentic, unique, and left us wanting to know more about that school, about those students, about those teachers.

Second, the student speeches, like Dwayne’s from KIPP New Jersey:

Wow. We heard 4 separate KIPPsters share their experiences and their challenges; the unwavering support they got from their teachers and families throughout their journey; their inspiring accomplishments, and their plans for the future. Their ability to tell their stories to 6,500 people with such poise and confidence was a sight to behold. Each student reminded me why we are in the field of education, why we do what we do: to see students and graduates like Dwayne, Allyson, Kendall, and Juanita; to see the powerful impact education has on students’ lives, families, and communities; to do whatever we can, each in our own way, to make the world a better place. It was exciting, it was inspiring, and it was humbling.

At the end of the opening session, I tweeted, “Every single conference should begin this way” – full of energy, excitement, and an overwhelming focus on the people in the room and their reason for being there.

And whenever possible, every conference should include the KIPP Tulsa 3D Drum Line.

Watch more videos from KIPP School Summit 2014 >