Originally published in the Houston Chronicle September 27, 2017

By Sehba Ali, Mark DiBella, Mike Feinberg

Hurricane Harvey might be behind us, but as public school educators in Houston, we know that thousands of children and families are still struggling to meet basic needs for housing, food and more. Though the flood is over, it will take a long time for the impact of the storm to recede for many in our community.

Despite the physical obstacles still facing Houston, now is not the time for our schools to lower our expectations for student learning, which includes state accountability. We reject the temptation to lower expectations by assuming it’s impossible to focus on learning while also attending to our students’ basic needs.

The dreams of our students and families are far more expansive than just having a dry bed, food to eat and a roof overhead.

Throughout the school year, we will continue to monitor how our students and families are progressing and provide individualized support and services to assist them. We will work to make sure that the basic needs of our students are met, and in doing so, ensure that they can focus on achieving their inherent greatness.

At KIPP and YES Prep, we’re familiar with this “both and” approach to supporting the physical and emotional needs of our students.

Several years ago, through a partnership with Legacy Community Health, we set up on-site health clinics in our schools to provide students with holistic developmental support — academic, physical and socioemotional.

This partnership with Legacy has been instrumental in helping KIPP and YES Prep support our families after the storm. Before we opened our doors after Harvey, Legacy counselors trained teachers to facilitate “circle” conversations, where students could connect with classmates to share their experiences and memories of the storm.  And on the first day back, Legacy mental health experts visited classrooms to identify children who were suffering from trauma and needed additional counseling. None of these supports would have been available if our schools had remained closed.

With this partnership with Legacy, and the collaboration of many other local nonprofit and faith-based organizations, KIPP and YES Prep students are fully reengaged in school. After the storm, our teachers and staff were also eager to provide children with the consistency of a safe, compassionate classroom environment focused on excellence.

That’s why we believe that we must maintain high expectations for student learning across all public schools in Houston. Even with looming hardships ahead, courageous families still share our bold commitment to ensuring all children are prepared to succeed in college and career and to pursue choice-filled lives.  We had more than 98 percent attendance when we reopened our doors on September 7, which shows how eager Houston’s children and families were to get back to learning and to reestablish a sense of normalcy that embraces the highest of expectations.

We urge our fellow teachers, principals and policymakers in Houston to keep the focus on learning this year for the talented, motivated children and young people whose dreams are more vivid and whose limitless potential is far greater than any of us can fully grasp.

Perhaps the most compassionate thing we do as educators is to provide constant belief in our students’ potential, no matter what the weather brings.


Sehba Ali is the superintendent of KIPP Houston Public Schools, Mark DiBella is the CEO of YES Prep Public Schools and Mike Feinberg is co-founder of KIPP.