Hannah Powell's New Approach to Education

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Hannah Powell bounds down the airy hallways of KIPP Columbus, dressed in a navy KIPP sweatshirt and kelly green jeans, her blond hair tucked in a loose bun.

"Hi, Kippsters! Good Morning! Happy Friday!" she greets kindergarten and first-grade students, all clad in blue KIPP polo shirts as they stream in for another day of learning to live the motto, "Work hard. Be nice."

As they pass her in the hall, Hannah trades high-fives with a few students. One stops for a hug. Hannah gently tugs the braid of another.

Her strides carry her to the school's dining space, brightly lit by floor-to-ceiling windows revealing rolling green hills and acres of mature trees. She waves at students in grades five through eight, who have gathered here for breakfast. Her next stop is a visit with the Temple Owls of 2027, named for the university their teacher attended and the date these kindergartners, not even a year into their elementary careers, will graduate from college.

On appearance alone, it would be easy to assume 34-year-old Hannah was a student teacher, rather than KIPP's head administrator. It'd also be easy to mistake KIPP Columbus for an upscale private school, as opposed to its real mission as a free charter school for Columbus' underserved students.

It was a desire to ensure every child has the tools to be college-ready that led Hannah on the road toward KIPP. And it's what's helped make the school-and Hannah-a model for others to emulate across education in the U.S.

"Children are ours-every single one of them," Hannah says. "And we have a responsibility to give them the future they deserve. I fundamentally believe that all kids matter-and can and will learn. They deserve an opportunity to do their best. And this is about creating an educational environment that really empowers them to do that."

Her recognition of that responsibility began during Hannah's time as a student at Wittenberg University in her hometown of Springfield, Ohio. She was the first member of her maternal family to enter higher education, and her outgoingness led her to work toward a degree in communications.

Her priorities and career perspectives shifted while fulfilling Wittenberg's community-service requirement at a homeless shelter, where she came face-to-face with the reality of real poverty-located just a few miles from her own home.

"These kids were 15 minutes away from where I grew up, and they couldn't read, they were hungry, they were tired," she says. "And it made me ask, 'What am I going to do about it?'"

After she earned her undergraduate degree in 2003, Hannah put aside law school goals and instead signed up for Teach for America. Her path was tested, however, when she found herself teaching sixth and seventh graders at Shaw Middle School in an underserved part of Philadelphia.

Hannah showed up for her first day ready to teach in a new turquoise suit and pearl earrings, with a clipboard to keep organized.

"I got rocked," she says openly. "It was really difficult; I knew what to do, but we weren't speaking the same language. The other teachers had a bet how long I would last. The longest was two weeks."

Hannah called her father, Dan, a pastor, to say she wanted to reconsider law school after all. He reminded her of the importance of seeing things through.

"He told me, 'You made a commitment, so figure it out,'" she says. "He said, 'It takes time to build trust, and the kids you're working with need you. If you're not teaching these kids, who will do it?'"

So Hannah rolled up her suit sleeves and dug in. Before her students could learn academics, she had to earn their respect-and remind them of basics like raising hands to be heard. She arm-wrestled every sixth-grade boy in the cafeteria to make a name for herself-and earn trust with the students-and she built a community based on mutual admiration.

"I really tried to build a connection with these incredible kids I had the opportunity to serve," she says. "That whole year was about building community and working relentlessly to achieve what most people would feel is impossible."

And the more she fell in love with her work, the angrier she got about the inequity she saw in public education.

"The children in our country, only one of 10 in low-income homes are making it through college, and that's an injustice," Hannah says. "To address this, it's going to take everyone working together, relentlessly, to serve kids the way they deserve. It's going to take, quite frankly, us creating a more just world for our kids."

When her Teach For America commitment ended, Hannah returned to the Buckeye State to work with the Fordham Foundation's Keys to Improving Dayton Schools program, with an eye toward reconstituting failing Ohio educational institutions. That led her to seek out successful charters to model-and she found herself repeatedly coming back to the KIPP schools.

San Francisco-based KIPP, an acronym for Knowledge Is Power Programs, is a national collection of K-12 charters that provides free open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools in underserved areas. It operates under five pillars, or guiding principles, that include measurable high expectations for academic achievement, an extended school day and individualized leadership that guides each KIPP site from within.

Most importantly, the KIPP schools showed Hannah there's a different way to approach education-one that put students' needs and goals first.

"I was at KIPP Key in D.C. and [a teacher] was working with kids on a book," Hannah recalls. "The way they were talking about the text brought me to tears. They showed the applicability in their lives. They were real and kind to one another. They built off each other's ideas.

"When I walked into KIPP Key, it was clear what was happening and why," she continues. "What I saw were people who remember the kids. They made it safe, joyful and inspiring. That was the moment I decided to change course and come to KIPP."

The success Hannah saw in the D.C. school wasn't evident in KIPP Journey, which opened in Linden in 2008. Less than four months after opening, the school was under capacity (with about 50 students). A solid leader was needed.

"They had high expectations for teaching and learning and behavior that did not show results," Hannah says of the school's first days. "They were well-intentioned people, but there were gaps. We weren't delivering on the promises made to the children and families, and we needed to reestablish a clear vision and focus on results."

In December of that year, Hannah stepped in to fill those gaps. Board member Abigail Wexner admits there was little thought at the time that KIPP was unleashing an educational star.

"We were at a very critical point after our first year of opening," Wexner says. "We had the wrong school leaders. We were not delivering on the promises we had made to the families. We were fortunate Hannah came in to help at that time.

"Hannah [proved to be] tenacious and curious and hardworking," she continues. "And the quickest study I have ever met."

Hannah's plan for tackling the challenge involved reestablishing the KIPP philosophy among students and staff, closing the budget deficit and developing better consistency in teaching practices.

She assembled a team of dedicated, committed individuals who believed in KIPP's mission. By year two, the team nearly tripled enrollment.

"We can't solve our problems using the same programs we used to create them," she says. "Charters are designed to be incubators of innovation, to be collaborative and synergistic with school districts, to provide choices, to be very responsive to the needs of the kids."

She also partnered with industry and community experts who could use their strengths to make KIPP stronger. Among them was Aimee Kennedy, then principal of The Metro School, a Franklin County STEM-focused 7-12 magnet program. The two met when Hannah toured Metro to gather ideas and have stayed close through Kennedy's move (she now leads education and STEM learning at Battelle).

"What I learned from Hannah Powell is her philosophy: 'Find a way or make one,'" Kennedy says. "She has a vision that is transcendental. She knows what kids can achieve, and she will persist until she makes it happen."

In her current role, Kennedy works with KIPP on teacher training and establishing partnerships to prepare students for jobs that may not yet exist. She says Hannah's ability to seek and utilize help from the best players is what makes her so successful.

"Hannah has a gift for engaging people in pointed and difficult conversations, and challenging perception," Kennedy continues. "Every single day, she reminds people they need to be the driving force for kids."

That engagement helped KIPP grow to 300 students by 2011. In 2014, more than 600 students, 60 staff members and 50 teachers moved into its present, palatial home on Agler Road, formerly the Columbus State Community College-owned Bridgeview Golf Course. A guarded gate and white split-rail fencing make the 124-acre site seem more like a horse farm than a school.

KIPP currently houses students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as fifth through eighth grade. With the new facility will come an expansion of three more buildings to accommodate and fill in all grades between kindergarten and grade 12. Ultimately, the school will welcome 2,000 students.

It's a lofty goal, but those who know Hannah best say there is no one better suited to the task.

"She has an incredible passion for what she is doing," says Rebecca Asmo, chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbus. "She will do whatever it takes to get the job done, even in the face of criticism and challenges."

In addition to community partners, Hannah also finds motivation and support from her husband, Todd Tuney, who she met through Wexner. Last year, Tuney left City Year, where he had served as director, to become Columbus City Schools' chief of communication and community affairs. The pair recently settled in the Short North.

Hannah may be settled in her personal life, but she knows there is still much work to be done. No matter how big KIPP grows, she is committed to treating every student like a future college graduate.

"I refuse to believe a child's demographic should determine his or her destiny, or their family, zip code or color dictates their destiny," Hannah says. "Our kids are some of the most inspiring, hopeful, strong people I have ever known. This is an opportunity to build and create an academic environment to fundamentally transform the lives of a generation to come."