KIPP Raíces founder talks about building the school into a National Blue Ribbon winner
Craig Clough | February 25, 2016
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KIPP Raíces Academy School in East Los Angeles celebrated its National Blue Ribbon Schools award on Tuesday. After the ceremony, LA School Report caught up with the school’s founding principal, Amber Young Medina, who opened Raíces in 2008 and is now the managing director of KIPP LA Schools. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
LA School Report: Tell me about your background, where you grew up and how you got into education.
Amber Young Medina: I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I went to college at Amherst in Massachusetts. I grew up in Agoura. I knew my parents had sacrificed a ton for my sister and me to go to private school, but I never knew why. And then when I went to Amherst I took a class where I had to teach in a local high school, and it was the first time I had actually been in a public school, I realized. I was infuriated by what I was seeing, that students of color were making up the mainstream classrooms and Caucasian students were making up the AP classes, and I was outraged. I called up my mom to talk about what I was seeing and experiencing, and she said, ‘Why do you think your father and I sacrificed so much?’ Because my mother is Mexican-American, and based on her educational experiences in Los Angeles, she wanted to pay to have a voice, so that no one would look at my sister and me and not believe anything less than what she was believing. And so I felt that parents absolutely need to believe in the schools in their community and not have to question whether or not the teachers and the staff believe in the families.
At that point I knew I was committed to education, I knew that’s exactly what I was going to be doing in my life, and so when I graduated from Amherst I did Teach For America at Compton Unified and I was part of a change of what was happening there. We had an incredibly dynamic principal that was leading a team and we were making incredible growth at the school and we became Compton’s first California Distinguished School. So I was part of that, and then my principal went on maternity leave, so at the age of 26 I stepped in as the interim principal.
LA School Report: Were you the youngest principal in Compton Unified?
Young Medina: I don’t know the exact statistics. It was meant to be three months and it turned into two years. And so it was an incredible experience. I absolutely loved my time in Compton. And then I found out there was an opportunity to found the first KIPP elementary school in California. And it is funny because when I had been at Compton my friend’s father had sent me a news article about KIPP and wrote a note on it that said, ‘You need to work for KIPP.’ But KIPP was only middle schools at the time.
LA School Report: There were no elementary schools in LA?
Young Medina: Yeah, no elementary schools, and when KIPP was founded there were only a few elementary schools. It was a very new part of KIPP and so when I found out about the opportunity, leaving Compton was a tough decision, but I knew it was the right thing. I really wanted to be a part of KIPP where it is all about the students first. So I applied for the Fisher Fellowship, was awarded the Fisher Fellowship and spent a year planning.
LA School Report: What is the Fisher Fellowship?
Young Medina: The Fisher Fellowship is, you spend a year planning and designing the school. It’s a KIPP national fellowship … you go through selection and then you spend a year in leadership training with them, visiting schools across the country, writing your school design plan, and writing your charter. And then it happened, August 11, 2008, we opened.
LA School Report: I would imagine that time at Compton was like spring training. Because Compton is a district that has challenges but you got to see how a school can do well within that, since it was a California Distinguished School. Tell me more about that time. It must have been crucial for everything going forward.
Young Medina: It absolutely was. So much that I learned there I brought here. And over time, the beautiful thing is when you create a new iteration you can make it better. So people that have taught at Raíces and now they are founders, I see what they take and how they make it their own. Many of the practices that I started in Compton still exist here.
LA School Report: And then when school started here, you were the principal?
Young Medina: I was the founding principal. So I was the principal here for six years. And then Chelsea [Zegarski] took over. She was one of the founding teachers and then assistant principal. So I transitioned to KIPP LA as managing director of schools.
LA School Report: What do you think it is that has made this school special, and above and beyond so many other schools?
Young Medina: I think it starts with our values. It’s a really loving place, but it is also coupled with high expectations and a focus on results. It’s about having an incredible team truly committed to our mission. And working in partnership with our families. It’s truly a family. Like today, one of the most beautiful moments was [parent Mirna Cardenas] saying [about Young Medina], ‘She came into my home and made me feel like I was joining a family.’ And I think that’s incredibly powerful. Those relationships and that partnership we have with our families from the beginning is really a beautiful thing.
LA School Report: Have any KIPP LA schools been a Blue Ribbon winner before?
Young Medina: We are the first.
LA School Report: So what does today feel like for you? On stage you were talking about running booths at farmers markets to recruit kids. What a journey from there to here.
Young Medina: It is. Because when, at that time, I literally roamed throughout the parks, and if I saw a child that looked like they were 4, I would go up to them and say, ‘Are you 4?’ It’s amazing people didn’t call the police on me. But I would essentially approach families, and I was a stranger to them. And I started talking to them about this idea of what we were creating and this promise of what we were going to deliver. And I think promises to families and kids are sacred, and to see that the promise is being upheld and honored is incredibly powerful.