Deborah Kenny’s rising tide

June 1, 2012, 2:45 PM UTC
FORTUNE — She pulled over to the shoulder on I-95, took out her notebook, and wrote: “Education is not about developing products. It’s about developing people.” Deborah Kenny was recently widowed, unhappy at her high-paying job, and eager to create a new public charter school in Harlem. Which she did. In Born to Rise, Kenny takes us on her long but rewarding journey to deliver great education, one teacher and student at a time.

Kenny decided that the best way to build a quality school was to develop quality teachers.

She firmly believed that socioeconomic circumstances shouldn’t block any student from learning. Her naïve optimism helped her cut through New York City’s stultifying educational bureaucracy and get the very best from her teachers and students.

Like many successful entrepreneurs, Kenny had a clear vision from day one but often changed tactics along the way. She flew around the country to conferences, picking the brains of top experts in education, while figuring out how to start a school with barely any money in her bank account. Many experts warned Kenny that she could easily fail. At times she did, but only in small ways that strengthened her motivation to succeed.

When Harlem Village Academies launched in 2001, only 29% of fourth grade students in Harlem could pass a basic reading test. Just 16% of Harlem eighth graders could read at grade level. Five years later, Kenny’s students made history as the first Harlem class ever to achieve 100% proficiency in eighth-grade math.

Kenny introduces us to kids who faced long odds in their pursuit of an education. Their successes and failures keep you turning each page. After President George W. Bush toured Kenny’s school in 2007, he said on national television that schools everywhere should follow her example. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the school “a national model of excellence.” NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams called them “a lesson for America’s schools about what works.”

Kenny’s high expectations don’t always pan out. At one point she observes a class being taught by a teacher who is applying for a position at Village Academies. Noticing a lot of children misbehaving, she says: “While it was obvious within five minutes that she was not going to be teaching at my school, I stayed for the full class period, both to be polite and also because I was fascinated with what I was seeing.” When she finally opens her own school, however, she finds that the teachers she recruits don’t always have control over their classes.

Kenny isn’t perfect, and she makes a lot of mistakes in the course of her decade-long struggle to build a quality school in Harlem. These imperfections make her success that much more inspiring.

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