The Charles Bronfman Prize Awarded to Co-Founders of KIPP, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin
‘Breathtakingly singular’ is how The Honorable Madame Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada describes the accomplishments of Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) founders Mike Feinberg, 40, and Dave Levin, 39. Accepting recognition for their work to transform the face of public education in the United States and the promise of its application abroad, the two men took to the podium at New York’s Powerhouse at the American Museum of Natural History to receive the 2009 Charles Bronfman Prize and to share their thoughts about the future of KIPP.
They did so before a distinguished crowd that included Justice Silberman Abella, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Ambassador Gabriela Shalev; Canadian ambassador to the United Nations Dan Sullivan; Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation; business leaders and foundation heads, and leaders in the education world.
KIPP, a national network of tuition-free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory schools, has made enormous strides in closing the achievement gap in low income communities. It was born out of the frustrations that Feinberg and Levin faced when they taught fifth grade students in Houston, Texas through Teach for America.
Battling to get through to students who were slipping through the cracks of the standard curriculum, the pair rallied for permission to test their own ideas. The principles they developed in that single Texas classroom have today been replicated in 66 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia, serving over 16,000 students. Ninety percent of KIPP’s students are African American or Latino; 80 percent are from low income homes. While fewer than 1 in 5 low- income students nationwide attend college, KIPP’s college matriculation rate stands at over 80 percent.
“We have never before had a program that made gains like that for these kinds of kids,” said Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews, the author of Work Hard, Be Nice, who addressed the audience on behalf of the nominating team.
During the celebratory proceedings, former KIPPster and current Columbia University student Melissa Diaz described the transformative impact of Feinberg and Levin’s Knowledge is Power Program.
“KIPP opened the doors for all of us. In one generation, I made it from a low-income, single-parent household, to the Ivy League. At KIPP, we learn that in order to achieve your goals, you should not only work hard, but you have to truly want success. You have to give it “ganas”. “Ganas” is the fire that makes you keep going, it is the extra little something that differentiates mediocrity from excellence. I’ve always had it, but never before had I been encouraged to really push myself…not until KIPP.”
KIPP is underpinned by a partnership between students, parents and teachers each of whom signs a Commitment to Excellence: to spend more time in the classroom including weekends and summers; to commit to a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum; and to rely on a dedicated corps of teachers available by cell phone in the evenings for extra help with homework. Speaking on behalf of the Prize judges, Justice Silberman Abella had high praise for KIPP’s work. “By opening these children’s minds to opportunities, choices, and contributions neither they nor their families ever thought accessible, KIPP has given them – and the rest of us – a better chance at the kind of future we all dream of for everyone’s children.”
The Charles Bronfman Prize was founded to honor Charles Bronfman on the occasion of his 70th birthday. According to co-founder Stephen Bronfman, the Prize continues to do just that. “My father believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world,” said Charles’s son Stephen. “He is committed to young people and to creating opportunities for them to explore their heritage and enrich their future. Dad’s powerful commitment to innovation and to social justice holds education at the heart of it all. He expresses his humanitarian instincts through a Jewish universalism we are proud to share. Our nominees and their nomination teams honor our father with their ideas and their ideals.”
“The KIPP model thrives because like my father, it recognizes and embraces the power of partnerships and commitments,” said another of the Prize co-founders Ellen Bronfman Hauptman. “This Prize is about identifying and nurturing the talents and opportunities of not only our generation but of generations to come. Mike and Dave exemplify this promise, and we look forward to witnessing the transformation that will be created by the KIPP generations.”
Exuding enthusiasm for the potential of KIPP to reach beyond the United States, Prize recipient Mike Feinberg remarked that “it’s up to us to change that one word—can—to will. Yes we can build a better tomorrow, so now we will build a better tomorrow. And not just for our families but for the children in southwest Houston, for the children in south Bronx, New York, for the children in Canada, for the children in Israel, and wherever else there’s a need to prove that zip code doesn’t determine destiny. Together we will all build that better tomorrow.”
“There is no present that any father could ever wish for that is more meaningful than his own children saying ‘we think that you’re a pretty good guy we’re going to do something that is going to carry on as long as you’re alive. They did it with full heart,” said Charles Bronfman when he addressed his children. He also used the opportunity to laud the importance of KIPP’s work and mission, telling Feinberg and Levin that “your strivings are helping to make this country the great country that it has to be to lead the world. You are transforming education in this country.”
Prize recipient Dave Levin concluded by expressing his profound gratitude and hope. “The papers are filled with thoughts of the recession. But the reality is, as the Bronfman family has demonstrated, and as all of the KIPPsters demonstrate every day, there is no recession when it comes to the heart and there is no recession when it comes to generosity.”
The 2008-2009 Prize Cycle
Feinberg and Levin are the fifth recipients and the first team to receive The Prize. Nominations for the 2009 Prize came from 16 countries and included nominees in fields of social justice, interfaith dialogue, conflict resolution, human rights, education, science, gender equality and Jewish spirituality. For more information about prior recipients and their accomplishments, please visit www.TheCharlesBronfmanPrize.com.
About The Judges
Recipients are selected by a distinguished panel comprised of Rosalie Silberman Abella, Supreme Court of Canada; James D. Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank; and Dan Meridor, current Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy.
About The Founders
Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Andrew Hauptman together with Claudine Blondin Bronfman and Stephen Bronfman, founded The Charles Bronfman Prize in honor of their father. They are the Trustees of The Charles Bronfman Prize Foundation, a United States 501(c)(3) corporation headquartered in New York, which administers the Prize.