From the minute you pick up Deborah Kenny’s book wrapped in star endorsements from the likes of John Legend and Hugh Jackman, you know she must be doing something right. Kenny is Founder and CEO of the successful network of public charter schools known as Harlem Village Academies. In her first book, Born to Rise: A Story of Children and Teachers Reaching their Highest Potential, she shares her powerful journey to transform education for students who need it most.
After years of working in the corporate world Kenny felt compelled to make an impact. The heart wrenching death of her husband due to Leukemia, left her alone with three small children and a desire for a career she could be passionate about. When she couldn’t sleep she poured through the pages of books about children living in poverty in America.
“As I read, I decided that life expected me to get over my own pain, and to do something for those who were suffering more,” she wrote.
Kenny quickly learned the common theme in success stories of children in poverty was education. A passion was formed. She found joy in transforming the lives of students who would not have otherwise likely succeeded in school. It was a ten year journey to open the schools, much of which was filled with challenges and great obstacles. Kenny overcame them all and decided to turn her sorrow into passion for education.
As she developed her school plan, Kenny decided that schools needed to be created with teachers in mind. She wanted to create a network of schools that were teacher-driven, a place every teacher wanted to be. Holding teachers accountable became the key to freedom in their classrooms. Creativity and culture were present in all Harlem Village Academies classrooms. Kenny did not want her teachers “teaching for the test” and instead allowed them to focus on depth and comprehension with their students.
“Teachers are the center of our universe. Nothing is more important”
Kenny relied on the advice and support of education mentors from philanthropy, charters and non-profits as she forged through hurtle after hurtle. When most people would have given up, she persevered, determined to make a difference. This book was a reminder of why Kenny and so many of us in the education world get out of bed in the morning; to help every student succeed.
Born to Rise came from a song musician John Legend, also a board member of Harlem Village Academies, wrote as the school song:
Roots in the soil of Harlem town
Growing toward the open sky
We are the seeds of hope and love,
Excellence and pride…
Deep in the heart of every child
Planted in every mind
Lies the desire to reach the clouds
We were born to rise…