Editor’s note: On Monday, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools inducted Rod Paige into their Charter School Hall of Fame. Rod’s contributions to education date back over half a century. Most notably, he rose to national prominence as the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District and was appointed the first black secretary of education in 2001. The Fordham Institute is also proud to have him serve on our board of trustees. This is the second half of a two-part interview (the first half is here) he conducted with our own Alyssa Schwenk.
Alyssa Schwenk: Mike Feinberg had started KIPP as a kind of “classroom-within-a-school” program, and he needed support to expand and grow. There is a story of him sitting on your car and grading while he asked you for more space to grow his program. What did he say to you to convince you that you should invest in him—and that it wouldn't be a disaster?
Rod Paige: Well, there were two Teach For America teachers, Mike Feinberg and David Levin, both teaching in elementary schools in the east part of the city. They had provided a lot of innovative programs and activities for the students in their fifth-grade classes. Now, fifth grade was the top grade in our elementary schools at that time. They were zoned to Jackson Middle School, which was a very troubled middle school. So Feinberg and Levin were concerned that all the work they had put into those elementary school students would be undone and lost. So they came to me about that problem, and we found out that there was some extra space in Garcia Elementary. So we allowed them to keep the fifth-grade students, who would normally go to Jackson Middle School, to stay an additional year at Garcia Elementary School. I thought that was just a one-time problem. A year later, guess what? They are now sixth graders going into seventh grade, so that's when they tried to get an appointment to see the superintendent—me at that time.
I think my secretary gave them an appointment a couple of weeks in advance. Of course, they wanted to move much faster than that. They knew that I left my office somewhere around 6:30 in the afternoon, and when I walked out of my office, I saw these two guys sitting on the hood of my car. I pushed them, and they told me that they wanted to talk and couldn't wait until two weeks or whatever the time was. So we went back into the office and sat down. We talked for about another hour and a half. I was really excited about the proposal that they were putting in front of me, and they won me over as a supporter.
What I did then was allow them to build a campus on another middle school campus. We built several temporary buildings on the campus of a middle school called Sharpstown Middle School, and they started the KIPP schools in those temporary buildings. We thought that would be the end of it, but it was not, and they needed more space. So they came here again, and I think what we did then was block out some space in the central administration office. We closed down an office building and moved all of the people out of that office building and gave that building over to Feinberg and Levin, and they moved the KIPP school onto the space of central administration.
AS: What did they say that sold you to the point of moving part of your staff out of a building?
RP: Go back to Garcia Elementary School. They were providing unusual activities to fifth-grade students outside of the ordinary experience that elementary school students would get: visits to the city council, visits to the library, visits to the museums, visits to Washington. You would go over to the school and be excited about the students—regular elementary school students who were just tremendously excited about learning. When you were in the room with them, you could see that the students literally loved being in class, which was unusual. So it wasn't just all talk; they could demonstrate this. And when you’d go into the building where they were teaching, you would be captivated by the excitement there and the interest in learning. A person going into that room would always come out as a supporter of KIPP.
AS: Did you have any hesitations at all about turning over the keys to them?
RP: Absolutely not. In fact, I wanted more of that. I called a meeting of all of the teachers of the year and had David Levin and Feinberg and the people from Chrysalis [another charter network] and other charter schools talk to them about the support that I had given them. I followed them by saying to all of the teachers of the year that if they were to start an innovative program like that, I would support them as well. But none of them took me up on the idea.
AS: Why do you think they didn't?
RP: I don't know. The only ones that did were from programs like Teach for America. So I guess they were captured by the traditional culture in public education at that time.
AS: What do you think makes schools like KIPP, which have endured over twenty years and are the life of the charter movement, really stand out?
RP: I think it is the way they inspire students and give them the freedom to take some responsibility for their own learning. Kids were captivated by the idea that they were also involved in deciding how they should learn and what they should learn. KIPP painted a picture of what the future would be for them, provided they made the effort and put forth the work to move ahead. It focused them on the future and what the possibilities were. The same thing was true for their parents: They were inspired as well because KIPP took time to explain that they were part of their children’s education.
AS: What did you learn from your early support of charter schools?
RP: The whole thing was about the magic that was created by people who were really interested in teaching and free to exercise their ideas. The fact that they were constrained by the system—the one way to do things, the way directed by the central administration and others—they just followed those ideas step by step without putting their own creative intuitions into their teaching. And so I knew that there were better ways to do things. I had learned that from the conflicts that Thaddeus Lott had with the administration and the results that he was getting from students. And so the results that they were getting in terms of student achievement was spectacular and couldn't be ignored. You couldn't argue with it. You could see the accomplishments, and so you wanted to spread that idea across as many sites as you could.