Born to Rise by Deborah Kenny

BORN TO RISE (reviewed on May 1, 2012)

Inspirational account of a woman beating the odds to open quality schools for low-income families in Harlem.

In 2001, Kenny, who has a doctorate in comparative international education, created what would become Harlem Village Academies—even though the venture made no sense to her family and friends. A young widow with three children at home, the author had no charter school experience, no building to use for classrooms, no specific plan and little money. She did know enough to realize that without fundraising success, she would never obtain charters from education regulators. However, raising money was extremely difficult without a state charter in hand. Nonetheless, Kenny felt compelled to proceed for reasons she didn’t fully understood. The book is partly memoir; the story of the charter school doesn’t appear until approximately 50 pages in. The author begins with a chronicle of her husband’s death from cancer, followed by the story of her innovative thinking as a business executive, including her stint as group president of Sesame Street Publishing. Kenny shares the development of her thinking about her hoped-for charter school, with its emphasis on building a faculty of the best teachers available in the K-12 range. The parents of the children completed applications, and the spots were filled by an independently run lottery. Although many of the students are lagging below the norm in reading and other subjects, a high percentage of them have shown marked improvement as Kenny’s charter schools have refined teaching and learning techniques.

A mostly upbeat book that explains many of the obstacles to success while often glossing over those obstacles and the negative outcomes accompanying the admirable successes.

Pub Date: June 5th, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-06-210620-9

Page count: 256pp

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: April 11th, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2012


Deborah Kenny Biography

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Dr. Deborah Kenny is an American educator, author of “Born to Rise” and the founder and Chief Executive of Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools in Harlem, New York.


Dr. Kenny started the Harlem Village Academies charter schools[1] shortly after her husband died from leukemia in 2001.[2] She was the founding principal of the flagship Harlem Village Academy in 2001. Previously, Kenny served as Group President of Sesame Street Publishing, and as Vice President of Marketing and Business Development of Time Warner‘s Parenting Group. She is a former classroom teacher with expertise in youth leadership training and curriculum development. In starting the schools, Dr. Kenny was heavily influenced by Jack Welch’s approach to leadership and accountability.[2]


Dr. Kenny holds a Ph.D. and M.A. from Columbia University in comparative international education, and a B.A. Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pennsylvania.

Work with Harlem Village Academies

Deborah Kenny is the founder and CEO Of Harlem Village Academies, a network of charter schools in Harlem. Kenny believes that there is an overemphasis on “The program elements…things like curriculum and class size and school size and longer day.” She believes that none of these program elements are nearly as important as the quality of teaching in the schools.[3] “If you had an amazing teacher who was passionate and given the freedom and support to teach well that was just 100 times more important than anything else.”[3] Kenny believes that the emphasis on program elements is one of the main reasons it has been so hard to repeat the successes of good schools “They were trying to replicate programs instead of trying to develop people.” Instead, Kenny said, “I became obsessed with how to develop great teachers. You put all of your focus on finding great people, and you establish a culture that helps them constantly learn and grow and become better at what they do. You have to provide a community in the school that supports and respects teachers. And you have to give them the kind of freedom that allows their passion for teaching to flourish.”[3]

Some of the country’s most powerful leaders in business, finance, media and entertainment have become close with Kenny and involved with her work in Harlem, including Hugh Jackman,[4] Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg,[5] Dick Parsons, John Legend,[4] Jack Welch, Katie Couric, Leon Black, Steve Forbes,[6] Jonathan Gray, Edward Lewis, and others. President George W. Bush visited the flagship Harlem Village Academy in 2007 calling it “a model of excellence.”[7]

Educational Philosophy

Dr. Kenny’s educational philosophy is built on her vision to create schools that she would be happy to send her own children to. “I had five core things in mind for my kids, and that’s what I want for our students. I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives”.[3]

Her strategy for how to achieve this vision was presented in a Wall Street Journal article in 2010 called “A Teacher Quality Manifesto” in which she discusses workplace culture and how it impacts public education. In this, Dr. Kenny sets out her approach to creating workplace culture. She describes three components of culture: ownership, teamwork and learning that have been the key to elevating teacher quality at her schools, and she believes the only way to fundamentally change public education is to build a culture in schools that attracts talent, brings out passion and holds teachers accountable for results.[8]

She has spoken out against an overemphasis on teacher evaluation. “The government is building a bureaucracy that used to be around compliance, I fear that we’re now building a bureaucracy around evaluation. Instead we need … to think deeply about human motivation. How do you bring out in someone the desire and drive to do their best, to hold themselves accountable.”[9]

Kenny is a proponent of the charter model and has said in order to promote education reform we need to “charterize” the country: “What’s really critical is the freedom that you get with the charter to do whatever it takes to make it work. The secret is not the processes or systems that come out of the freedom and accountability. So we truly need every school in the country to have those underlying conditions of freedom and accountability. And then you’ll see people on fire in the classroom.”[9]

She coined the phrase “authentic accountability” and she believes that authentic accountability can only happen in schools that have employment at will. “How do you provide all that trust and collaboration that all teachers need and deserve? The only way is authentic accountability. It’s not a top down bureaucracy, it’s not a checklist. It’s restoring humanity to the classroom by restoring human judgment to schools.”[9]

Kenny is currently writing a book about her life and the founding of the schools.[8]



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