Growing up in Northwest Houston, Lindsey Lorehn had access to strong public schools. Her parents wanted a school where they felt welcome, where their voices could be heard and where they could actively contribute to Lorehn’s education. Not unlike most parents, they wanted a school that had a reputation for academic excellence.
With degrees from Xavier, Tulane and even med school, Lorehn’s parents looked to live in a neighborhood with the best public schools, despite having attended parochial and catholic schools themselves. In finding a great school with a track record for classroom achievement, what they couldn’t find were students who looked like their daughter seated at the desks.
“The benefit was having access to a great public education,” said Lorehn, now principal of KIPP Northeast Elementary in Denver. “The drawback that was huge, was the lack of diversity.”
As one of a few kids of color in school, Lorehn said race just wasn’t talked about in school. Often, it wasn’t even seen by adults and kids who had gotten used to receiving the miseducation of race in the ’90s—a decade shrouded in colorblindness.
Not only did Lorehn need to be seen, she needed to be heard, understood and valued for her differences. Years later, Lorehn has had several conversations with her mom about her education. While she recognizes and appreciates the great education she received, the cost in terms of time—eight hours a day—spent trying to discover her own positive identity and value, is nonrefundable.
After graduating from New York University and interning for the ACLU, she sought out Teach for America, which ultimately brought her to Denver for a chance to teach, honor and love students of color in a way that she didn’t receive as a kid.
As a teacher of color in a community of color, Lorehn said she felt at home with her students. But, her presence in one classroom wasn’t enough. She needed to reassure more than a classroom full of kids and their families that they didn’t have to choose between excellence and love for who they are as individuals.
So she worked to become a principal to reach more families and open up a lifetime of choices—all except the one that would force them to make the same choice her parents did for her.
“I wanted to fight against this false narrative that you have to have a school that either values and honors your identity or one that offers kids a college prep education—I wanted to prove you could do both,” Lorehn said.
In just her second year as founding principal, Lorehn and her team at KIPP Northeast Elementary have consistently achieved a green rating—the second highest available on the Denver Public Schools quality scale. And, with a population where nearly half of the students are English learners, 86 percent are on track with their language growth. That’s one of the top 10 “on track” ratings of all elementary, middle and high schools in the district.
While the school moved from Montbello to Green Valley Ranch this year, the school serves a pretty even number of students from both neighborhoods in Far Northeast Denver. Through Denver’s SchoolChoice enrollment process, families in both communities have equal access to experience all that Lorehn has to offer.
Serving pre-K through third grade means students have not yet taken some of the state assessments used to evaluate growth. But, given the data that is available, Lorehn is proving she can strike just the right chord of excellence and love.
“Talking ’bout KIPP love—KIPP love!”
During my visit to Lorehn’s school, the love and respect her students have for each other literally echoed through the halls. Singing their own lyrically-revised version of “My Girl,” kiddos knew exactly how it felt to have teachers who could express both high expectations of them as well as their deep love and compassion for who they are as individuals.
“From the moment we opened our doors, the feedback we got is that there’s such a positive tone with our teachers,” Lorehn said. “Teachers engage kids in such a loving way—every child is being loved on, being valued as a human being.”
Love is one of the values Lorehn founded the school with and every kiddo knows how to receive and show love. I’m not sure more than a few minutes passed without someone offering someone else a hug. And for those with sensitivity to personal space, two claps and a warm set of spirit fingers seemed to do just fine.
Families feel the love, too. As often as she can, Lorehn welcomes parents into the building to cheer for the Kippster of the Week, read during family literacy time or volunteer in their child’s classroom. Those who can’t make it to school need only to check their phone for a pic of their child laughing and loving what they’re learning in class, as every teacher has a KIPP phone to help families stay connected to their child throughout the day.
When I dropped by on an unusually dreary Colorado morning, Lorehn and her Kippsters had nothing but “sunshine on a cloudy day.”
Setting the tone with “The Trouble with Black Boys”
Part of helping students truly feel loved is making sure each individual is respected and understood. Even before Lorehn and team brought song-writing into the mix, (fun-fact: Lorehn once thought she might go into the music industry) they set the tone for what it would look and sound like to be in a school that valued equity and justice for every student.
At the beginning of each school year, Lorehn leads a professional development training to help teachers understand how powerful their influence is with students of color. In it she refers to an excerpt where a group of students reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” grapple with how to respond to a teacher who expects them to write an essay while ignoring the n-word that appears on every other page.
“We use that to say: who do we want our Kippsters to be when they leave us in high school,” Lorehn said.
“What are the frameworks of oppression that these students are facing and let’s put a name to it using a framework of oppression and different responses to oppression. What are those different responses and how do we want our kids to be when they experience this level of oppression? And that’s how we decide, ok what does that mean for us to live this vision of excellence and equity? Bottom line, we’re not going to be the teacher in this story—that’s the floor, but who do we want to be in terms of the ceiling for our kids.”
For Lorehn that means helping her teachers and students understand the value of justice, which she defines as making sure every child gets what he or she needs within their community.
“We just might have a problem that you’d understand…We all need community to lean on”
It’s pretty much guaranteed that Lorehn’s kiddos don’t know that Bill Withers was the original songwriter of “Lean on Me.” But, when they sing their version, they know that each of them has value and deserves whatever necessary to help them succeed.
With her team, Lorehn underscores the importance of adapting to the individual needs of kids in order to add to their story of success. And while it’s not easy, Lorehn believes it’s absolutely crucial to student development
“There are kids in our school—that with time and a lot of support—are able to be really successful and their story isn’t ‘I’m a bad kid,’” Lorehn said. “
“Their story is about what do I need to be successful, like I need to sit in this place, I need my headphones when it gets loud, I need to be able to walk away and take a break. I need to be able to run out of the classroom for a second to catch my breath if I’m feeling frustrated. I think that’s pretty powerful when I think about all of our kids, but particularly our boys of color being able to have strategies to support their social emotional development.”
Kids recognize their own role in creating a just community as well. From second-graders electing themselves as safety monitors at recess to kids giving up their spot in line to help a friend who really needs to be first, Lorehn teaches her kids that no matter their age, they have the power to see a problem and try to change it. When kids do make a decision that doesn’t support the community, they always reflect about their choice so they can understand how to make better choices in the future.
“Those are the conversations that our kids have on a consistent basis so that we can coach them and restore them to a place of learning,” Lorehn said. “And it’s our commitment to ensure that if students are not successful, it’s our job, in partnership with families, to figure out what we need to change and what we need to do to make them successful, versus saying kids need to fit into this mold or this isn’t the school for them.”
“Let’s get down to business—to correct what’s wrong”
While it took me a minute to realize those lyrics were from the movie Mulan, for Lorehn’s kids, the tune means it’s time to talk about the value of justice. Lorehn even built in a social-justice block during the day to expose kids to issues of race and social justice in a way that their young minds can process and understand.
“The way our kids live justice—and we shout them out for that—is if they see one of their friends has a different need or has some challenges, we see our kids seeing that, empathizing with it, and doing something about it,” Lorehn said.
With that as a foundation, Lorehn and her team can then introduce culturally responsive texts and age-appropriate lessons on things like the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration, and even the Keystone Pipeline.
“So I think the biggest thing is giving kids the space to share what they already know and making it clear and concrete without potentially making it scary,” Lorehn said. “It’s also, just being mindful that we have such a gift of being a very diverse community and I want to be mindful that what I see as just may not be what a student’s family sees as just. So we want to make sure we’re also honoring where all families are coming from in a way that’s still respectful and aligned to our values.”
As a leader in the KIPP network in Far Northeast Denver, Lorehn gets to see her kiddos as they head upstairs to middle school, and down the street to high school. She’s setting a foundation for them to compete academically with every other child in the city, and doing it in a way that honors who they are so that the identity challenges she grew up with don’t cast a shadow on her students.
“I want them to just have a really strong sense of self,” Lorehn said. “I want them to feel a lot of ownership over their lives and their learning and I want them to be thinking on a daily basis: how am I changing the world each day, with big and small things? Something we have on the wall here that really resonates with me is the phrase: ‘Lift as we climb’ because we want to make sure that kids feel that it’s their responsibility as they’re climbing the mountain to and through college to lift others up with them,” she added.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve nailed our vision yet. That’s why it’s a vision and so it’s the right vision to have and that’s what we’re working toward as a school.”