As Founding Principal of KIPP Academy Chicago Primary (KACP), Jarell Lee was on track to help his students exceed their educational goals.
“Our student culture was really strong, our family engagement was strong,” Lee shares of founding KACP in 2019. “Our teacher satisfaction was high. But the thing that we really hung our hat on was our student achievement. Kids felt like it was a loving and joyful environment.”
In March of 2020, over 90% of KACP’s students were reading at or above their grade level, with only four needing support to get caught up. “Our entire school was fired up about getting those kids above grade level,” Lee says.
So one afternoon that March, Lee and his staff met and nailed down a plan: They’d help get those four students where they needed to be. That was on a Friday. By the following Monday, his plans had come to a halt. “We never came back to school,” Lee says.
To say the interruption to his students’ success hasn’t been easy to contend with would be an understatement. “There’s still this bad taste in my mouth about getting this close to being able to prove what’s possible,” he says. But when it comes to education, Lee has navigated his own share of challenges as well. “There’s still this fire in me.”
“When I was five, [my mother and I] were really poor,” Lee shares of his childhood growing up in Cleveland. “We were walking home one day … and she told me to stop and look around. I turned to my right. There was an abandoned lot; … turned to my left, there was a broken-down house.
“And she told me, ‘This is all I have. So, if you want to do anything with your life, if you want anything better than this, then you have to do well in school.’ And I did. That was when I first started applying myself.”
For the next two years, Lee and his mother were homeless, moving in and out of local shelters. Still, Lee abided by his mother’s mantra: Apply yourself, and you’ll succeed. By the time high school rolled around, Lee had his sights set on the prestigious Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio. He’d earned the grades he needed to get in, but money stood in the way.
“The school cost as much money as my mother made in a year,” he says. “There was no way I could go.” Instead, Lee attended a nearby public high school for his freshman year. The following year, he was able to transfer to Hawken, which was 30 miles away from his home. “I had to drive to the bus stop [and] catch the yellow school bus for an hour and a half to get there … every day.”
For Lee, high school was an eye-opening experience. “It was at that school I realized a few things,” he says. “One, my entire life, I’ve been told if I work really hard, I would be able to get a better outcome for myself — and I realized that that hard work is only going to get me as far as it can.”
“[There] was just a huge gap in terms of just if I could afford it or not; how much money my family made. And then when I got to that school, I realized that most of the kids who could afford to go there were white, and they were not Black like me.”
I [wanted] to do something about this for kids who look like me, who grew up like me.
Despite these barriers, Lee excelled at Hawken. He went on to graduate from Harvard University with a B.A. in sociology and African American studies.
From there, he earned his M.S. in elementary education from Teacher U at Hunter College and his M.A. in supervision and administration from the University of Houston. Critically, his time in high school proved to be foundational to his career as a school leader.
“I [wanted] to do something about this for kids who look like me, who grew up like me. I [wanted] them to have better educational opportunities, to not have to go through what I had to go through growing up and traveling 30 miles every day to go to school,” Lee says. “I remember that every single student I see is me. I grew up just like them.”
Today, encouraging their students to pursue academic success beyond KACP is the default for Lee and his staff. “Our entire school model is really based on college,” he says. “We name our classrooms after colleges. On Fridays, [staff members] wear shirts that have our college names on them or organizations we [were in].”
Of course, for Lee, engaging with his students is about far more than cultivating an atmosphere of academic excellence; among KACP’s staff, student well-being is a genuine priority. Lee, who was a gospel rapper in high school, writes and performs songs for his students — “about tucking in your shirt, walking in the lines safely … [and during the pandemic], about wearing a mask.”
Here’s a recent rap Principal Lee made to motivate and inspire his students for their upcoming tests
Lee’s raps aren’t the only student engagement tradition that is unique to KACP. Each February, the student body participates in a Black Lives Matter rally, which includes a chant and a march through the school. “Students are able to participate in their first protest when they’re in kindergarten,” Lee says. “So, that’s something that we do every single year. It’s become kind of a ritual and a staple for us.”
Outside of leading KACP, Lee’s work decisively returns to his roots: He serves as a board member of New Moms, a Chicago-based organization that provides mothers with housing support, job training, and other assistive services. Lee says his background makes his work with New Moms significant: “There was an organization similar to New Moms in Cleveland that really helped my family get on their feet.”
But his relationship to New Moms is also personal: One of its employees worked at the shelter Lee lived in as a child. “When I moved to Chicago, we reconnected,” he shares. “She worked at New Moms, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it to [pay forward] some of the help that I had gotten when I was growing up.”
While Lee’s background makes him uniquely equipped to lead KACP, like most people around the country, he wasn’t prepared for the challenges ushered in by the pandemic.
“Figuring out how to support our students socially, emotionally, as they come back after COVID, making sure they’re getting the outside counseling or medical services that they need, the housing — it’s a lot,” Lee says. He acknowledges that the new obstacles are compounded by the reality that staff members have been similarly impacted by the pandemic.
But for Lee, the social-emotional support he and his staff provide to KACP’s students isn’t just a self-imposed responsibility — it’s expected of them by the community. Paradoxically, school leadership is prevented from providing its students with the all-encompassing support they need due to a recurring obstacle in the U.S. school system: underfunding.
“We look at schools as kind of the catchall that can do everything. So, if students need to learn social-emotionally, we say, ‘They need to learn that at school.’ If students need to move around more, we say, ‘Schools need more recess time.’ If students need more access to something, we say, ‘It needs to happen at school.’ But what we don’t do is [sufficiently] resource schools.”
Lee continues, “By resources, I mean funding, I mean programming, and I also mean staff. Very rarely will you find a principal who says that they have enough of those three, enough of any of those three.
“[We need to] pour more into communities,” he says, adding that, in order for children to thrive, the academic support they receive inside of the classroom needs to be supplemented by well-resourced community organizations.
The numbers overwhelmingly support Lee’s position: Over the decades, research has shown that most educators across the country feel their schools are underfunded. What’s more, these numbers are skewed by disproportionately underfunded school districts whose students are mostly Black and brown.
We look at schools as kind of the catchall that can do everything. But what we don’t do is resource schools.
Despite the challenges of being underfunded, and still feeling the impact on learning from the pandemic, KACP is gradually getting back on track. “This is the first normal year we’ve had,” Lee says.
As his students look toward the 2023-2024 academic year, he has high hopes they’ll be able to achieve to their pre-pandemic goals. He also isn’t hesitating to seek out the resources necessary to provide them with the support they need to reach those goals.
When he began his work as an educator a decade and a half ago, Lee’s mission was the same as it is today: to effect change for students in Black and brown communities on a large scale. That’s why, when he joined Accelerate Institute’s Growth Accelerator program, getting strategic support for his school’s vision was top of his mind. “As a school, you can never have enough resources,” he says.
It’s a decision he’s grateful to have made. “It’s one thing to go and find the resources for yourself, but [the program] does a good job of bringing the resources to you … which makes it just so much easier.”
But expanding his leadership skillset wasn’t the only reason Lee became a Growth Accelerator Principal. As KACP’s Founding Principal, Lee was new in town and eager to receive guidance from someone who knew the ins and outs of leading a Chicago school.
“It was incredibly valuable to have an advisor who … worked in Chicago as a school leader, who could give me advice,” Lee shares. “School leadership is an incredibly lonely job. It’s very isolating … So [I appreciate] having someone to vent to.”
Reflecting on his early academic career, Principal Lee acknowledges that his formative experiences helped him do more than connect with his students; they provided him with the vocabulary he needed to communicate effectively with colleagues from different backgrounds.
“I was [fortunate to grow] up in a low-income Black and brown neighborhood. [After that], I went to school with well-to-do white kids,” Lee says. “I’ve been in so many different circles.”
Now, when Lee provides teachers with leadership coaching, he reminds them that the people they’ll be leading might be from different backgrounds as well — and will likely bring strengths to the table that differ from their own. To Lee, acknowledging that they can learn from those outside of their circle does not amount to weakness — however, it does require vulnerability.
As for KACP’s future, Lee is optimistic. He gestures to the wall behind him.
“I do the work for them,” he says, pointing to a photograph of his two sons, “So they can see their father doing something he cares about, something he’s passionate about.”
Ultimately, Lee’s drive to lead KACP comes back to seeing equity realized for communities like the ones he grew up in.
“Low-income Black and brown communities aren’t [resourced, so] we miss out on the knowledge and the passion and just all of the opportunities that could come from the students who don’t have the resources that they need,” Lee says. “So, that’s what I hope to [provide] every day.”