Interview With Brandywine’s Kenny Rivera After His Trip To See Schools In India

Kenny Rivera, an Assistant Principal at Brandywine High School, recently embarked on an incredible journey to India to explore different schools and systems in education.  I interviewed Kenny this week.  While he was in India, I saw his Facebook posts filled with pictures of schools and students.  Kenny has graciously allowed me to use those pictures in this article.

Kenny Rivera is not just an administrator though.  As a member of Lead For Delaware, his resume is filled with accomplishments in education.  A long-time educator who was the Delaware Social Studies teacher of the year for the 2016-2017 school year, Kenny became an Assistant Principal at Brandywine High School this past school year.  In addition, Kenny spent many years on the Red Clay Consolidated School District Board of Education and was even the President of the board for some of those years.  He was also one of the co-chairs of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission.  I’ve met Kenny several times and he is very passionate about education.

The trip was sponsored through a program called Lead For Delaware which gives training and support to school leaders throughout Delaware.  While Kenny visited what are known as “government schools”, most of his time was spent at an all-girls school called the Pardada Pardadi Girls Vocational Schools.

THE INTERVIEW

I’m talking with Kenny Rivera, an Assistant Principal in the Brandywine School District, who just went on a huge trip to India to tour schools and gain perspectives of different systems of education. Hi Kenny!

Kenny: Hi Kev!

My first question- did Brandywine pay for this trip?

Kenny: No, the program “Lead For Delaware” did, which you’ve written some articles about. It is a fully-funded program through private donors.  I don’t know who they are.  It is an alternative program for admins and they pay for everything, the whole program.  If we make a commitment to Delaware public schools, high-needs schools, for five  years, and if we leave, we have to pay back up to $35,000.00 to Lead for Delaware.  It is appropriated.  But they pay for all expenses, all expenses are paid for on this international journey as they call it.  It is one of the program requirements.  Most of it was paid for.  I had to pay for some things out of pocket.

One of my big questions- it had to be a very grueling trip and there had to be a lot of pressure in dealing with everything. How did your wife handle it back home with all those kids?

Kenny: I married a saint! That’s all I have to say!  She’s amazing!

So what was the main purpose of the trip?

Kenny: The purpose was, one, for us as leaders to get out of our norm and begin to think of systems differently, open our minds to what can be.  Two, to observe schools in India and have a sharing of ideas and best practices.  How do they do things and then we spent time teaching them based on our observations.  Really, the focus was on how to better engage students in their classrooms.  We spent most of our time in one school, an all-girls school.  It really focused on the empowerment of women but we also toured some of the other government schools nearby.

How were the classroom sizes compared to Delaware?

Kenny: It really depended on what school we went to. Some of the government schools are smaller, maybe in the teens, and then the school we were at, there was a range, maybe one math class that was in the mid 40s and the girls were sitting on each others laps.  But there were other ones, like an 11th grade English class.  I think I counted in the upper teens.  That was kind of the range.

Kenny wrote the following about the 11th grade English class in a Facebook post:

Had the best classroom visit yesterday in 11th grade English. Teacher had a good lesson plan (rare), but detoured when his girls couldn’t define the lesson topic “Parts of Speech”. He spent 35 wonderful minutes leading the girls through a self discovery exercise to define it, with most questions focused on WHY they are studying this topic. He was visibly agitated when girls were pulled from class because he was worried how the girls would make up the missed info. He reminded me of Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. He is only concerned about teaching girls HOW to think, not rote memorization of concepts. Then we had an enlightening 1:1 conversation about his teaching philosophy, the school, Government schools, teacher pay, etc. I would hire him if I could.

Does India have standardized tests the way America does?

Kenny: Nothing that anyone said.

Parents don’t opt out over there?

Kenny: No opting out!

Are the government schools run different from the private schools?

Kenny: The school we were at, I guess you could consider that private. But the girls pay for the school.  The money is put into an account for postsecondary options for them.  The longer they stayed in the school and attended, they get good things like shots for their water buffalo, they would get a bicycle, a uniform, or maybe even a toilet for their house.  So those were incentives.  At the government schools, the teachers were very well-paid at those schools, not private schools.  They weren’t given much in terms of classroom resources.

Did you notice a lot of disparities between the government schools and the private schools?

Kenny: In terms of engagement. The first classroom I walked into in the government schools was a classroom that had Kindergarten students and 3rd grade students combined.  I’m walking in, and there was a Kindergartner sitting there.  No one was doing any work.  But he was sitting there and he wet himself.  I don’t know how long ago but he was there with wet shorts.  I felt bad.  I just remember there were flies all over them.  They didn’t seem to notice.  There were flies on their face.  That was at the government school.

I saw some of your pictures. The classrooms are very different from what we see in Delaware.  Were some of them outside?

Kenny: Yes. There was one classroom outside.  They sat under a type of covering.  All the other classrooms were inside.  There’s no windows or anything like that.  Animals are coming and going, the cows, the monkeys, all that is right there.  One of the government schools I went to had desks, the other did not.  They sat on the floor.  They were outside under a covering.  They had very little resources.  Nothing on the walls or anything like that.

How about textbooks or technology?

Kenny: Nothing I saw at the government schools.

What were your takeaways from this trip?

Kenny: One of the biggest takeaways I had was really seeing the influence and the power leadership and a vision can have for a school and impacting student performance.  I’ve seen examples of strong leadership in the United States.  I’ve seen schools rally around a motto or a practice that everyone gets onboard.  But I’ve never seen such a strong commitment to a vision I saw in one school.  Where everyone, from leadership to staff to students, really got behind this vision of empowerment of women.  It really drove every decision, why decisions were made, and it led to a culture and practice where learning was valued and expectations, high expectations, were set for every student.  Everything led up to that.  It didn’t matter that, one classroom I was in, it was probably 110 degrees with 45 students trying to learn math.  It didn’t matter.  They did it with a smile and did it well.  I truly believe that was because of the leadership and a vision that everyone bought into.

I’m going to assume they don’t have school boards over there?

Kenny: No.

How long is their school day?

Kenny: It was from 8:30 to 4:30, the school I stayed at. The government schools were shorter.  They were done by 1:00pm I was told.

Do they have lunch, or recess, or anything like that?

Kenny: Yes, they had lunch. They had little mats thrown out on the floor and they sat on the floor and a plate was on the floor.  They had a kind of stew that was dropped on the plate.  That’s what the girls ate.

How many teachers were in each classroom?

Kenny: Just one teacher for sure.

How does special education work?

Kenny: That’s nowhere developed yet, at all. They try to take things into consideration but they really have no idea about learning disabilities.

No IDEA (federal special education program) or anything like that?

Kenny: No, nothing.

As a longtime educator, could you kind of tell, maybe some of these students are showing manifestations of disabilities?

Kenny: Definitely some of them you would wonder but sometimes that language barrier made it hard to tell what was happening and what was them processing information.

Would you see students acting out or misbehaving?

Kenny: No. None.

Wow, that’s good! Based on what you saw and observed, what are you hoping to bring back to Brandywine as a result of your trip?

Kenny: The development of a vision that leadership- the administrators, the staff, the students, and the community, the parents- that all buy into it and believe and that will drive decisions, programs and practices for the students.

Do you see any similarities with that vision currently going on in Delaware to that extent?

Kenny: No. Not to that extent.  It was a very powerful vision.  Students taking the time.  One of the school leaders at the school there started this back in 2000.  You had to be patient.  She had this vision to open up the school and on day one zero students came.  They had other barriers, especially when you’re trying to do an all-girls school.  Girls aren’t educated there.  They (the leaders of the school) would try to convince parents, “no, the girls come, and here’s why.”  That’s a loss of income for the family and work has to get done.

Did you find that an intense level of parent engagement was necessary to foster that environment?

Kenny: They had to go back to the community, go to the parents, go to the religious leaders, and get they buy-in and show them what the vision was. Show how it would benefit everyone and build from there.

Was religion taught in the schools?

Kenny: It is not taught. The most I saw, the way they said, it was non-denominational which can also, to some people can mean anything that is religious and not just a god.  They were mainly Hindu but there were some Muslim students as well.  The most I saw and the most they do is in their morning assembly they have a very quick prayer that wasn’t to anything specific, just kind of a general prayer.

What did you learn about yourself personally through this journey?

Kenny: It reminded me a lot of mission trips I’ve done to high poverty areas. For me, it was truly just a reminder of how blessed we are in this country.  You just forget.  And you have to live the life, live this experience that other people live so you can remember the simple things in life you have to be thankful for.  Just having water, running water, is a huge thing.  The little things we take for granted that most of the world doesn’t have.

Kenny wrote the following on Facebook while touring high-poverty areas:

Village visit – I have been trying not to impose my values or pity as I travel around, but that is a challenge at times when I observe the material, infrastructure, health, educational, gender equality, and spiritual (not religious) deficits. Had a great meeting with the village leader and a couple girls who are working hard to lower child marriages in the village. I am excited to share their story and challenges they have to overcome with my students.

We know there are high levels of violence in Wilmington, unfortunately. Did you find they had similar issues in India?

Kenny: Not sure. The school had a very strong social justice angle to it for empowerment of women.  Part of the reason, one of the things they told us was if you look at the percent of males vs. female you will see the percentage of males is much higher.  We went to villages and I saw that.  I saw men everywhere, I saw very few women.  The school said part of the reason is the women are killed.  They are not valued, they don’t want females, and eventually they are killed off.  One of the big social justice issues that the school is very practically fighting is trying to end childhood marriages.  They have programs in the villages where they are trying to decrease the percentage of childhood marriages.  A lot of the dropouts in schools are because the parents are sending them off to get married.

At what age are these girls getting married?

Kenny: Teenage, sometimes even younger. And that’s the thing about the school.  They don’t even call themselves a school.  They call themselves an educational society.  The education in the school is only one aspect of what they do.  They spend a lot of the time going into the villages.  I think there forty or so villages that all kind of feed in.  Which is kind of powerful.  They don’t have people come to them, they go out.  That is a very big takeaway.  They go into all sorts of programs and trainings.  They have an “End Childhood Marriage” program which they call “A Committee of Six”.  In one village these girls are trying to convince people in the community for girls not to get married young until older.  We went in and observed a group of women meeting where they collect and pull their money together.  They have one joint bank account for them and take loans from each other and pay back very low-interest.  Also that women can have a chance to create a business, things like that they wouldn’t otherwise have.  Even that was led by a male in the community because the male is the only one in the group that can read or write and someone has to deposit the money and only a male is allowed to deposit money in the bank.

Wow! That is crazy!

Kenny: I really like the aspect that the school is more than just instruction. You want to make a difference in a child’s life.  There is a realization there is a whole-child approach there.  There are social justice ideas to consider and these things need to be addressed.  They want to see a child be successful and have a chance in life to have at least equal access and equal opportunity that other students have.

You said the students seem very engaged in instruction?

Kenny: At the school I spent a week at.

Did you get any free time during this trip?

Kenny: The first day we came into New Delhi so we spent a day touring New Delhi. At the end of the trip we went to the Taj Mahal.  I kept looking at it and even in my own eyes, it didn’t look real.  It looked like it was painted in the background I was looking at.

Editor’s Note: In Kenny’s Facebook post of this picture, he noted that it took 25 years for the Taj Mahal to be built which is less time than the ongoing Route 141 project!

You said “we”. Were there others from Delaware on the trip?

Kenny: This was the third and fourth cohort from Lead For Delaware. There were a total of sixteen people from Lead For Delaware.  Either cohort members or staff members who attended and then there were actually two other people from Delaware who were there for the first time and there was another lady.  This was her 9th time visiting and she comes and volunteers at least once a year.

You went from a school board President to an Associate Principal. How has that transition been while you were already a teacher before taking the new role?

Kenny: As a teacher, you are in the trenches. You are on that front line every day for students.  School board and all those other activities I’ve done are at a 10,000 feet level looking down at policy broadly.  I feel like the role I’m in now kind of tightened the belt and combined the two together.  You think more in the details and connecting the pieces together.  You help both sides understand the why and how to go.  I enjoy it.

Do you miss school boarding?

Kenny: I don’t but I don’t say that in a bad way. I loved my school board.  It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  But I’m also happy to move on and try other things as well and make a difference in Delaware education in different ways than before.

Are you still involved in WEIC (Wilmington Education Improvement Commission)?

Kenny: No, I’m not.

That ended with your school board term?

Kenny: Yes it did.

That ended the interview.  It was amazing to see the excitement in Kenny’s eyes when he was talking about his trip to India.  It was obvious this trip and experience had a huge impact on him.  When I met with him, remnants of the tattoos he received in India were still on his hands.  While those will eventually wash away, I am sure the memories of his trip will survive forever.

From Kenny’s Facebook post on his last day spent at the school:

We had a nice farewell day yesterday at the school. We had discussions with the teachers and leaders, and spent a lot of time with the girls. They put on performances for us, and were kind enough to decorate our hands with henna tattoos. A minor interpretation error… I thought they said it would last 2 days. Not so much. Not sure how I am going to explain the hearts.

India has a very high rate of “childhood brides”.  According to Unicef, It is estimated 7% of girls under the age of 15 are married and 27% of girls are married by the time they are 18.  While more effort has gone into decreasing these statistics over the past decade, where it used to be 50%, some areas of India have rates as high as 69% of girls becoming “childhood brides”.

In Delaware, the General Assembly was the first in the United States to pass a bill ending childhood marriage for anyone under the age of 18.  The bill, sponsored by State Rep. Kim Williams, was signed by Governor Carney last month.

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