Mighty Men Too

I spent the last years of my career in the KIPP Charter system. I had heard about the work of two young men who had created a different kind of school based on high expectations and the simple but direct imperative, “Work hard. Be nice.” I saw working at one of the KIPP campuses as an opportunity to be adventurous before I retired. I wasn’t going to start my own school but I wanted to see what it was like to educate kids in a dynamic environment where first generation high school graduates were groomed from a young age to attend and complete college.

It was an exciting and often exhausting five years. As a teacher I had always given more of my time and talents than required and I felt ready to tackle the long work days of KIPP Houston High School. Somehow I had been a natural in my profession and I had few worries about meeting my responsibilities in a highly charged atmosphere. I was already that teacher who spent three or four hours each evening poring over student work and planning exciting lessons. I was ahead of my time in building personal relationships and keeping students and parents informed. I thought that being a member of the KIPP world would be a piece of cake for someone like me. I learned soon enough that it would be perhaps the most challenging, but also rewarding, five years of my life.

KIPP charter schools set the bar high for teachers, parents and students. The hours were long and the standards were demanding. It took some time to become accustomed to rising before the sun and arriving back home long after dark but it was the KIPP way of life and I had to adapt. There was a sense of urgency for everyone within the system, unspoken rules that each of us were capable of giving just a little more of our time and talents. There was no rest, not even in the summer. We were part of a grand crusade to change the trajectory of the lives of the young men and women who had promised to do whatever it took to get to and through college. We had to teach them the skills, knowledge and habits that they would need and they had to meet our never ending challenges. In the end what we accomplished appears to have worked rather well.

I have been attempting to showcase the talents of the students who were part of my KIPP family during my five year tenure. If I were to adequately mention every single person, it would take weeks. The success rate of KIPP Houston High School is astounding. So many of our kids have rewarded our own efforts with their incredible determination to overcome the odds that were often stacked against them. In talking with them I have noticed that there is a common denominator that defines their success. They mention again and again that they felt a kind of pressure to complete their educations because it was expected by the school, the teachers, their parents and their peers. They learned from their KIPP experience that dreams were more likely to come true if they put in effort day by day by day, just like climbing a mountain. Last weekend more incredible young KIPP men and women graduated from college and with the taste of success freshly rewarding them, they all realize that their journeys are still incomplete. 

Isaac Rivera was one of my Algebra I students. When he was in my class he often took advantage of my after school tutoring sessions, a fact that alerted me to his willingness to put forth extra effort when needed. He has always been an affable young man with a grin that spreads across his face without warning. He loves people and laughs with a twinkle in his eyes. He’s the kind of person who embraces the world full force, wanting to know as much about it as possible. Isaac enjoys having long conversations and learning about people, a trait that is endearing because it is always apparent that he is truly interested. In other words, Isaac is someone who is quite charming and easy to like.

Isaac took a bit longer to complete his college degree than he would have wanted but he understood that it was not a race. Besides, he was dealing with health issues as well as attempting to help his family. He worked hard and always believed that he would finish what he had started. This past Saturday I watched him as he proudly received a degree in Finance with a minor in Economics from the University of St. Thomas. It was fitting that the guest speaker, Governor Greg Abbott, spoke of the importance of being flexible in life and holding fast to dreams because that is something that Isaac has most certainly done. He now plans to begin a career of his own while helping his family to grow their business. Eventually he hopes to work toward an MBA as well as a PhD so that he might one day become a college professor. Given his track record so far, I have little doubt that he will achieve each of his goals.

Jesse Ortega was a member of KIPP Houston High School Class of 2012. He possesses a kind of charisma that has always made him a standout. He is a brilliant young man who received a scholarship to attend the University of Texas in Austin, an accomplishment that made him one of the elite students in the state. With an eye toward one day becoming a medical doctor, Jesse majored in Nutritional Science. He also graduated this past Saturday. He performed so well in his classes at the University of Texas that he was recently accepted to the Southwestern Medical School in Dallas where he will fulfill a dream that he has harbored for a very long time.

Jesse has a beautiful family that has stood behind him every step of the way. Like Isaac he experienced some health problems that might have detoured his journey were it not for the intense devotion of his parents and his sister, Guadelupe, who is perhaps his biggest fan and supporter. Together they have overcome one roadblock after another and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to help Jesse to realize his ultimate dream. Jesse knows what he wants and how to get it. He is unafraid to expend as much effort as needed. He will be a great doctor.

I am proud and honored to know these outstanding young men who are but two of the remarkable success stories coming from the KIPP world. Others who also took to heart the lessons that we worked so hard to convey are Christopher Jordan, graduate of Texas Tech, Taaha Akhtar, graduate of Georgetown University, Erik Guerrero, graduate of Lamar University, and Nathan Thai, graduate of the University of Texas in Austin. I am truly overwhelmed to know that I along with my colleagues played a teeny tiny part in helping these men to dramatically shape the direction of their lives.

I applaud those who continue the tireless work in schools across the country that serve to create a better future for our society. I thank the parents for the sacrifices that they have made as well. Mostly though I have to give credit to the young men and women who did the heavy lifting. They deserve all the praise. It has been great to watch them enter the adult world with determination and optimism. They continually show me that the world is progressing just as it should.

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