CharterFolk Contributor Sehba Ali – The Fight for Brave and Belonging Spaces

Hello CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Sehba Ali, CEO of KIPP Texas Public Schools.

Sehba Ali, CEO of KIPP Texas Public Schools

I provide a bio for Sehba below.

Sehba Ali is the CEO of KIPP Texas Public Schools, whose mission is to develop the skills and confidence necessary to succeed in college, career, and beyond in each of their 32,000 students in 59 schools across Austin, Dallas-Forth Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. She is the former Superintendent of KIPP Houston Public Schools. In 2004, she founded KIPP Heartwood Academy middle school in San Jose, CA, which has consistently been rated one of the highest-performing middle schools in California. Prior to taking the helm at KIPP Houston, Sehba served as the Chief Academic Officer for KIPP Bay Area Schools. She began her career as a middle school English teacher in Houston, Texas with Teach For America. Sehba earned her B.A. from UC Berkeley and her Master’s from Stanford University. She was a Pahara-Aspen fellow and completed the Broad Academy for Superintendents. She currently mentors two KIPP EDs and serves on the Texas Charter Schools Association and The Post Oak School boards.

On home, Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” That sense of safety and belonging is what we at KIPP Texas Public Schools work to create at each of our 59 schools.

We call our classrooms “brave and belonging spaces,” a concept rooted in recognizing the full humanity of each of our students and teachers. KIPPsters learn early about empathy and understanding for their peers; they see diversity in their lessons and their school leaders; and they learn to love themselves.

Our Big KIPPsters – what we call our staff – work every day to make this a reality for our Little KIPPsters (students). But for that to happen, we have to have safe school facilities. This is particularly challenging for public charter schools, which do not have the authority to levy taxes or issue taxpayer-supported bonds. And while Texas created a facilities fund for charter schools in 2017, it remains woefully underfunded. On average, students who attend an independent school district (ISD) school receive about $700 more per student in facilities funding than their charter school peers.

On top of those challenges, we are increasingly seeing attacks on charter school growth at the local level. Cities and municipalities are arbitrarily denying permits, charging exorbitant fees not applied to ISD facilities, and openly calling for a halt to charter school growth. Nearly 70% of charter school campuses have a waiting list, and more than 58,000 Texas students are waiting for a seat. With this much demand, there is simply no room for local officials to stand in the way of the expansion process. That responsibility lies squarely with the state of Texas, which enacts stringent requirements for growth.

In Dallas, for example, last year KIPP Oak Cliff Academy high school needed a permanent home. The area surrounding its location has seen a major uptick in dangerous criminal activity, and because the facility is leased, there were limited security upgrades we could make. We invested in additional lighting, surveillance, fencing, and security personnel; but we know that it is in the best interest of our students to identify a safer and permanent campus. Unfortunately, political opposition to charter schools on the local city council meant we could not get a building permit in the city.

Despite that challenge, we were determined to find a new and safe home for our KIPPsters. We announced a historic partnership to relocate our high school onto the campus of Paul Quinn College. This location is safe, close to our other campuses and our students, and most importantly it will provide a priceless experience of attending high school on the campus of the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Dallas. As Dr. Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, said at the time, “We have a unique opportunity to do extraordinary work. If you don’t want to attend, you don’t have to attend. No one is moving in and saying we’re going to close down your school and open this school. This is about choice.”

This should have been good news, but even this decision was met with public opposition and protest from both the Dallas ISD and the Dallas City Council.

The previous site of KIPP Oak Cliff Academy.

The previous site of KIPP Oak Cliff Academy.

September 2022 Ribbon Cutting of KIPP Oak Cliff Academy, co-located on Paul Quinn College, the only HBCU in the City of Dallas.

September 2022 Ribbon Cutting of KIPP Oak Cliff Academy, co-located on Paul Quinn College, the only HBCU in the City of Dallas.

We believe firmly in the right of local municipalities to weigh zoning and permitting decisions against health, environmental, traffic, and safety concerns. And we can continue to have policy debates about public charter schools – we welcome that. But city councils cannot pick and choose which public school students deserve to be safe.

The Texas Legislature convened this month for its biennial session, and we are working to achieve the funding our students deserve and to end discrimination against them at the local level. They deserve no less.

And while we focus on those legislative “wins,” we also know this is a much bigger fight. It’s one we have known was coming for years. After all, charter schools are not in a trial period – over 3 million students attend a charter school nationally, and 1 million more are on a waiting list for the public school of their choice. A seat for those students is not guaranteed. Legislative support we may have enjoyed previously is waning because local pressure on state officials is growing.

In Texas, there are 2 million students who are not reading on grade level, the vast majority of whom are students of color who live in poverty. We will not stop growing to meet the demand that we see in these communities. Neither will we assume that any of this will be easy.

The success of charter schools under any logical scenario would breed greater support. Of course, things get a little less logical when politics are involved. Let us be awake to the very real, concerted effort to dismantle what our movement has collectively achieved.

This is the “new normal” for public charter schools. We must build strong pro-charter coalitions in our cities. We must create infrastructure to empower our families to raise their voices when the battles arise. We must invest in personnel who can keep a pulse on political opposition and mobilize against it. We must call on our boards, our organizational leaders, and our funders to be ready to be advocates for our students.