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Testimony of Nikki Barnes, Executive Director, KIPP Massachusetts to the Joint Committee on Education

Date Published: November 22, 2022


Good afternoon. My name is Rhonda “Nikki” Barnes, and I’m the proud Executive Director of KIPP Massachusetts. KIPP Massachusetts is a public charter school focused on creating joyful, academically rigorous experiences for children. We serve 2,200 students across two charters, including about 600 students in Boston in grades K-8 and about 1,600 students in Lynn in grades K-12. 

I am proud to share that this is my 31st year as an educator, and I still love what I’m doing – even after leading schools through a world-wide pandemic. In fact, I’ve drawn incredible hope and inspiration from my community. I’ve learned valuable lessons about how to strengthen our work in service to children and families, and it is my honor to share some of these learnings with you today, in hopes that they can help strengthen the ways in which we support continued recovery across the Commonwealth. 

First, I’d like to share what we experienced – and learned – about the critical role of deep engagement with children’s first teachers, their families. 

Throughout the pandemic, families and schools oftentimes found themselves at odds with one another – about masks, about returning to in-person learning, and more. At KIPP Massachusetts, we leveraged conflict and created ways to come together around important decisions – and we call that co-authorship. It is our family engagement model that means we literally walk hand-in-hand, sharing the power of key decisions that we make with our families. Along with engaging in productive conflict with families, we provide a variety of ways for families to access power and information in our schools. Doing this allows us to build relationships rooted in mutual trust. As a result of this work, at the end of last year, 87% of our families agreed that they had a voice in their child’s education. 

As we look ahead, I urge our state leadership to remember the deep importance of co-authorship with families. When beginning to build policies and programs that impact children, invite families to the table – even as an idea is being created. Create spaces for families to share their experiences as that idea grows. Listen deeply, embrace difficult conversations, and be prepared for that idea to change, ensuring families hear their own voices reflected when that idea becomes a decision. 

Secondly, we have always known that both academic growth and social emotional well-being were critical for student success. Through the pandemic, we learned just how interconnected those two are, and how interconnected our supports must be in order to ensure students are able to thrive. 

I believe that academic excellence doesn’t begin and end with academics. It actually begins with honoring children’s humanity – with the creation of safe, affirming learning environments. That’s why at KIPP Massachusetts, we have placed a high priority on social, emotional, and mental health. 

One thing that’s important to clarify: Centering children’s mental health is not about teachers becoming therapists. Throughout the pandemic, we grew our mental health team, and today we have 17 mental health counselors across our two charters. These counselors develop our regular social-emotional programming in addition to providing both rapid-response and ongoing clinical support for any student who needs it. Our mental health counselors are not auxiliary support staff. They are members of our leadership teams and grade level teams; they are mission critical. 

In addition, we have reimagined our instruction – integrating academic learning and social emotional learning in the classroom, simultaneously, through Play Based Learning in Kindergarten through 2nd grade and Project Based Learning in 3rd through 12th grade. 

Play Based Learning is a research-based practice, incorporating free and guided play into the school day. Play allows students to apply their learning in fun and meaningful ways, whether they are practicing geometry by building 2-D and 3-D shapes from PlayDoh and toothpicks, using their reading and writing skills to create a menu for their pretend restaurant, or becoming engineers by building the tallest block tower. While engaging in these various activities, students are also learning and practicing social skills – such as decision-making, managing disagreements, and communicating a vision to peers. 

Middle and high school students practice similar skills through Project Based Learning, which utilizes student-led projects to learn core content – not as the add-on at the end of the unit, but as the primary method of learning. With high school seniors across the country admitting that they’ve lost engagement in school, a staggering 77% to be exact, Project Based Learning is an approach that allows us to support re-engagement of students through the learning process.

We believe that centering our students’ humanity has created an environment in which students feel seen, loved, and valued – an environment in which they can, and want to, learn. As a result, I am proud to say that 93% of our students across Boston and Lynn returned to our classrooms this school year. We have maintained strong enrollment and continue to have a healthy waiting list. 

As we move ahead, it is important that our state leaders understand the intertwined nature of academic growth and social-emotional growth. In order to support our students, we must understand their strengths in both realms and address opportunities for growth in both realms, in an interconnected way. I applaud the state’s leadership in recently implementing universal early literacy assessments. I similarly urge our leaders to consider the implementation of a universal mental health screening that would provide us the data needed to enable us to better allocate funding, training, and programmatic solutions to support continued growth of the whole child. 

Finally, through the pandemic, we saw, more than ever before, that we cannot care for children without caring for teachers. Today, we are seeing more teachers than ever before advocate for work-life balance, for their mental health, and for additional support. At KIPP Massachusetts, we have instituted flexible paid time off, onsite child care for staff members’ children, targeted growth opportunities for emerging leaders, and optional 1:1 staff mentoring, as well as affinity spaces that are not associated with evaluation. We are doing this to ensure staff are supported both personally and professionally – and because we listened to them. Thanks to these efforts, 84% of our staff returned this year, and I intend to improve on that number. 

Looking ahead, we need to acknowledge that the teaching profession is changing — and needs changing. As we consider building programs and funding to support a stronger educator workforce, I invite you to consider investing time in facilitated dialogue with teachers. We can read statements, we can speak at hearings, and we can certainly vote, but teachers want and need to be heard and to have their experiences over the last few years acknowledged and their ideas about the future of their profession considered. They will be the ones who can help us re-imagine the future of teaching. 

It will take us years to not get back to pre-pandemic levels of achievement – because that would mean we’ve learned nothing from this experience, and I submit that we have. It will take us years to come together to re-imagine how we choose to tell a true story – a whole story, a multidimensional story of growth and achievement – and I am full of hope that we can. And yes, it will require hard work, but if we co-author with our families, if we center our students’ humanity, and if we care for and listen to our teachers – we will not only heal; we will thrive. 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.