Why Harbormasters Are Critical to a City’s Ecosystem

By: Kristoffer Haines

Situated enviably on the southern banks of Lake Michigan, Gary, Indiana, is a city once an industrial and cultural center. It’s here that one of my most vivid professional memories lies, while working as a Trailblazer for the KIPP Foundation in the spring of 2006. While driving down Broadway Street of its desolate downtown I came upon The Palace Theatre: “Jacks n Ɉive Tonite” read the marquee, its ‘f’ dangling upside down, hanging on as if 1975 may return at any moment for a reunion tour of classic Motown hits.
That spring my colleagues and I often found ourselves in Gary, a city that was now mostly forgotten, and sitting near, or at, the bottom of all economic and educational indicators. We were committed to opening a high-quality KIPP Middle School off Gary’s main street.
Navigating a city to build broad community support for high-quality schools eight years ago was an effort in mastering the door-to-door salesman technique, hopping library to city hall to community center to YMCA to McDonald’s to neighborhood park. We listened, shared information, and began a dialogue to build a coalition of supporters.
We did this day in, and day out, for months. It was, at times, fruitless. It was always incredibly slow moving. After all, it’s difficult to coalesce a true movement in any meaningful way, for most agendas. But pulling together the disparate threads of those committed to great educational options across any city is an art — and it’s nearly impossible to do so from without. It requires a local gravity from within.
What I know now, is that requires a harbormaster: an individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure their city has excellent school options for all children and families.
Ultimately KIPP LEAD College Prep opened in a church, and educated five cohorts of KIPPsters, as the highest-performing middle school in Gary, Indiana. Sadly, the lack of momentum and cohesion within the city, coupled with the inability for the city politics and special interests to acknowledge the need for true educational reform, led to KIPP LEAD College Prep closing.
The unfortunate truth is that Gary need a lot more decision-making adults acting on behalf of non-decision-making children — a reality too many of our cities face. There were no harbormasters eight years ago, and without them, cities like Gary, Indiana, cannot prove what’s possible. The same gravity that gave rise to a great manufacturing and steel economy, is equally required to create a first-rate educational ecosystem.
Fortunately, a lot can go right in five years, and between 2006 and 2011 the idea of the harbormaster has taken shape in a variety of forms, in a few pockets of our country. In some places, harbormasters were borne of natural disaster, as with New Schools for New Orleans; elsewhere, it was a response to a generation of declining results, as with Schools That Can Milwaukee; or sheer volition, as with San Antonio’s Choose to Succeed; or the sound execution of a strategy, as with the DC Fund of NewSchools in collaboration with the CityBridge Foundation.
There are others with less cohesion, in a variety of cities, but they will form quickly. There is no greater lift a city will realize for its children than the moment its harbormaster sets out to be the gravity for the creation of high-quality options.
My prediction is that the next five years will produce the next cohort of harbormasters, each more sophisticated and organized than the last, garnering unapologetic collaborative support from grasstops to grassbottoms; at which point the very mass of our collective work will finally begin to influence the system as a whole.
Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 5.17.01 PMAs Senior Vice President of Growth, Development & Policy, at Rocketship Education, Kristoffer leads those initiatives that foster the organization’s external relations, including: collaborative growth strategy, fundraising, marketing and communications, and policy agenda. Kristoffer’s previous roles include leading KIPP Austin Public Schools’ early growth strategy as their Chief Operating Office.

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