Looking through the Lens of What’s Possible

Tammi Sutton is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Gaston College Preparatory School and KIPP Pride High.  She has been a teacher in the traditional and public charter school sectors and brings 20 years of educational experience

and a passion for helping students to her work. Kwan Graham is the Parent and Charter School Advocacy Director for the Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina and works for the group’s Parent Liaison Initiative.  She was one of eight gubernatorial appointments to the fifteen-member North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Council and helps lead the North Carolina Public Charter School Accelerator. Kwan sat down with Tammi recently to learn about what it takes to make a great school work, and her thoughts on community partnerships and leadership.


Kwan Graham: Can you talk about the mission and vision of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) and why it’s so unique and effective?

Tammi Sutton: The mission is to empower all of our students with the skills, knowledge and character necessary to succeed at the colleges of their choice, strengthen their communities and fight for social justice.  The vision is that one day, all students in North Carolina will have access to a high-quality public education.  I think KIPP is unique in that three-pronged approach.

Not only do we want students to be successful academically and empowered to graduate from college, but also to make them good citizens and community members while developing a passion to fight against inequities in their community and the communities in which they choose to live for the rest of their lives.  So I think the pieces that infuse the character, the academics, and the desire to create social change are what makes us stand out.

Kwan Graham: Why was Halifax County picked as the first location to replicate KIPP-Gaston?

Tammi Sutton: That decision came at the intersection of three key factors, one being that we had quite a long waiting list at KIPP-Gaston.  About 40% of our students there currently come from Halifax County and once we had the lottery we still had enough people on the waiting list to fill a school the next day.  The number one reason is community demand and the desire from folks in Halifax County, even though they are one county away and had a pretty hefty commute.

Number two is that Halifax County historically has been one of the lowest performing school districts in our state and there has been so much press about that area, student results and the decision about whether or not to consolidate. We wanted to create an opportunity for students and families to be recognized for something other than the negativity and really fill a need to create change.  We know that we can’t solve what’s happening with consolidation, so we just want to offer another solution.

The third issue of importance is having a school leader who is really passionate about that area and wants to help the community there.  It’s an intersection of demand, the need and the opportunity with a qualified, passionate school leader like Marlo Wilkins who is from rural northeast North Carolina and knows the area and its unique challenges.

Kwan Graham: Why have you decided to take the lead to expand the number of KIPP schools in North Carolina?

Tammi Sutton: I think the biggest piece is that this is a way to achieve our ambition, knowing that in order to change the trajectory of so many students’ lives who wake up every day and are not heading to a school that will prepare them for a life of opportunity. We know that we will work within traditional schools – that’s part of the equation – and also that there are schools of choice. However, it’s not just about there being schools of choice, but ones that are excellent, particularly ones that are going to be in communities that help serve kids who need it most.

Secondly, I hope to create schools by partnering with traditional school districts, so we truly look at this as if all the kids are ours, not just the ones who are literally within our own brick and mortar buildings.  We are creating systematic change across our state and it’s important to realize that it’s going to take more than one school to be able to do that in both the urban and rural areas.

Kwan Graham: What are the factors that contribute to the success of KIPP-Gaston?

Tammi Sutton: I think having a real strong mission and vision that everyone is continually pursuing is probably the greatest factor and that we are hiring and training for that while continually developing people toward that end.  Once you have that vision, it’s imperative to make sure everyone you hire can also see and believe it and is working toward that. This is all a work in progress…we haven’t achieved it yet as it’s really hard work.  We’re trying to get everyone to go in the same direction.  And just as important is making everyone believe that it’s possible…having a growth mindset, not only about themselves but their students and their students’ families.  I think those beliefs are at the center of it and then there’s more classroom time, the professional development that goes into our teachers and the high expectations of KIPP and the rigor.  But none of that matters if at the heart there’s not a core belief of what’s possible with all the people in the building working toward that end.

Kwan Graham: With the launching of KIPP-Halifax and KIPP-Durham, you saw the need to partner with the North Carolina Public Charter School Accelerator program.  How did that partnership help KIPP expand?

Tammi Sutton: I think being involved with a program that provides additional assistance, particularly with on-the-ground set-up such as writing and submitting the charter application, having the expertise of people who know North Carolina so well – both the politics of the state and the school needs has added value throughout the process. It’s so helpful to work with people who have been grappling with these questions and who are truly committed to producing high-quality schools in areas that are historically underserved. I think that adds an extra dimension of professional development and support for our KIPP leaders who have really benefited from it.

Kwan Graham: With KIPP-Halifax opening its doors in August 2014, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced in opening a public charter school in a rural county and what’s been the community’s response?

Tammi Sutton: The biggest challenge has been locating a facility and land that goes with it.  Fortunately, there has been a great deal of interest in the school.  With our announcement that we would like to come to Halifax County, there have been many communities who have said, “We want KIPP-Halifax here.”  We have received more than 500 letters of support and petitions with over 1,000 signatures.  So because of that it has forced us to look everywhere in Halifax County.  Many different potential sites have emerged as possibilities but our challenge is to turn “What’s possible” into “What is.”

We have been interested in purchasing an existing property that is already owned by a municipality because we would like for our money to go back into our county and our town but we found that to be more difficult than it has been in the past and we are looking at purchasing directly from an individual.  Finding the building and the land has been by far the most difficult process here, navigating all the way from investigating a site to owning it.  We are still going through that process now.

Kwan Graham: Tell me about KIPP’s expansion goals and your plans?  Based on your success in Durham and Halifax County, do you plan to expand to other counties in North Carolina?

Tammi Sutton: Right now our plan is to expand in the communities of Northhampton, Halifax, and Durham to make sure we are getting better as we grow.  Part of why we waited 13 years to expand is we really wanted to have the success of our alums, to see our first cohort matriculate to and through college and have the result of kids who have quadrupled the college graduate rate of kids from low-income communities.  We want to establish that record as we grow.  We have seen many organizations grow and do it really well and we have seen many organizations grow and not do it well, so it’s really important to us that we use this opportunity to expand and constantly improve what we are doing.

Kwan Graham: Can you talk about how your experience and background help you in your new role, serving on the North Carolina Public Charter School Advisory Board?

Tammi Sutton:  I think over the last two decades of having been a teacher in a traditional school and a teacher in a charter school, having founded a school and working now with primary, middle and high school students, it’s helped me form a good perspective in knowing what it takes to start and run a really high-quality school.  That includes everything from hiring to purchasing to capital needs to figuring out which insurance to purchase.  Having that broad experience of having done that and starting a number of schools is extremely helpful.

I also think it is important that you have worked with a population of students who have historically not done well but then you see them exceed local and state results.  You develop a lens of what’s possible and you’re able to push the envelope about making sure excellence really means equity and equality.  You are not an excellent school if parts of your school are doing really well and there are pockets of students who aren’t.  As we open new schools, it means asking hard questions about why they are opening, what their goals are, how are they going to make sure it happens and then most important of all – how they are going to make sure excellence and success happens for all students.

Kwan Graham: Will you paint me a picture of what a KIPP school is like?

Tammi Sutton: If you walk into an excellent classroom in a traditional school you will see a lot of the same things great teachers everywhere are doing.  What is going to be different about a KIPP school is that you will see what everyone is working toward.  You will see a committed teacher making sure that 100% of his/her students are participating and that means they are actively tracking the teacher, asking or answering questions, and engaging in conversation.  You will see a push for 100% of the students to be engaged in what’s happening.  You will see teachers preventing or redirecting off-task behavior or anything that sounds like meanness or anything perceived as negativity.  You will see teachers striving to create a joyful classroom where teachers and kids are learning together and having fun. Joy comes from grappling with really hard questions and material and finding success.

You are going to see and hear that there is a community of students. We refer to our students as a family of lions working toward a common mission.  You will hear character-embedded language when teachers and students are speaking.  You are going to see an emphasis on understanding that what you are learning now will help you in high school, college, and the fight against those things you think are wrong in your community and communities worldwide.

Kwan Graham: What do parents of KIPPSTERS say about their children’s schools?

Tammi Sutton: I think parents will say this is really hard and the bar has been raised.  You will hear them say their child was bullied and picked on in their old school and now those are not problems.  You will have parents who tell us that their kid was really struggling before and now they are getting extra support by calling their teachers on their cell phone, those same teachers who will meet them after school or on weekends.  You will have parents who say their child now has to work really hard and they celebrate when they earn that A.

When you talk with parents who have an older student who has been with us a while, they will be able to explain that they not only see growth in their own child, but also his/her classmates.  And you will talk with parents who tell you ways that KIPP can get better and that’s really important for us to hear too.  They will tell you their feedback about homework, transportation, things like that.  We are always striving to be better.

Kwan Graham: What is the KIPP culture like? What is its personality like?

Tammi Sutton: It’s hard to define.  Every KIPP school reflects the community and its leadership, so from that standpoint each school is different.  There are 141 KIPP schools across the country and there’s not one singular personality.  What they all have in common is the mindset that by any means necessary, we’re going to make this happen.  If we fail the first time we figure out another way and while we have this no-nonsense business part of our personality, we also have a passion and love for what we do.  This is really hard work but we love it because complicated tasks with difficult answers are what’s exciting about what we’re doing.  Hopefully that is embedded in the minds of our students, as well.