Kindezi Culture Invites Success

With only 6-8 classmates, each Kindezi student receives personalized attention from the teacher.

By Michelle Valigursky

Kindezi Culture Invites Success

In Congalese society during European colonization, village elders would babysit and educate the youngest community members in small groups through a practice called kindezi. The Kindezi School in Southwest Atlanta, co-founded by Bobby Jones Scholar Kathleen Jones 99C, educates children holistically in a peaceful, loving environment that emphasizes individual attention to students.

"The child in the mother's womb is the burden of one person; outside (born) it belongs to everybody (in the community)." This proverb spoken by Bantu people of Kongo, Africa serves as the school’s touchstone. "Though we remain flexible and fluid with our approach to classroom education,” says Jones, “our core principle is class sizes of six to eight students to encourage true learning."

The community surrounding The Kindezi School is economically challenged, with retail closures, home vacancies, and incidence of crime. In fact, because of extreme economic circumstances, seven area schools were closed due to underenrollment. Jones and her co-founder Dean Leeper seized the opportunity to make a difference in the hard-hit community.

After several years refining the concept and obtaining funding, The Kindezi School opened in August 2010 and eventually moved to the former Atlanta public school Walter F. White Elementary. Word spread about Kindezi’s unique teaching methods and peace-loving environment. 

The school’s mission is “to create a nurturing, empowering, parent-integrated, and safe small class/small school environment conducive to optimal growth and self-realization. Through tutorial, differentiation, and student-centered approaches to learning, we will develop the leader, artist, and scholar in all students while instilling in each a love of learning and a sense of pride.”

Now, this young charter school with 190 students maintains a waiting list of hundreds of students for enrollment. It’s no secret why. 

Dreams Come True

Fueled by the overwhelming nature of teaching in large classroom environments, Jones wanted a more meaningful school experience for children. In 2005 Jones met Dean Leeper, a Harvard-educated teacher with a similar vision. Each knew that our education system could be more empowering. They compared notes and quickly realized how well their educational philosophies merged. In short order, the two set to work developing the charter for what would become The Kindezi School.

“It took us five years from the time we began building our founding board until we were approved by both Atlanta Public Schools and the Georgia Department of Education, and our doors were open,” Jones recalls. “It was a grueling process, partly because there was skepticism that we could make class sizes of six to eight work financially.”

While traditional classrooms often house one teacher and more than 25 students, Leeper and Jones created a model with “family size classes, plenty of coaching and reinforcement, and a high level of student participation,” says Jones. “The model works incredibly well and the kids love coming to school here.”

Located in a designated priority school enrollment zone for the immediate area, Kindezi used public funding and two large grants to open its doors for the 2010-11 school year. Initially, the school enrolled students in kindergarten through third grade. Each successive year saw the addition of a higher grade, and Kindezi now teaches kindergarten through fifth grade in small classes.

The differentiating result is superior academic performance and high level engagement. Jones cites facts. “During the 2012-13 school year, Kindezi students scored an average of 19 points higher on the statewide CRCT than the average APS student, and 10 points higher than the average Georgia student.  In the same year, Kindezi's fifth grade had the highest CRCT passing rate of any school in the Atlanta Public Schools district.”

Both Jones’ and Leeper’s dreams came to fruition in Kindezi. “I love working with small groups of children that I get to know well, engaging regularly with their parents, and working to meet each child’s specific academic and social needs,” Jones says. “Moving from teaching classes of 20+ students to this size has enabled me to see how much we can differentiate instruction for students and challenge them where they are.”

“Making this small-class model work on public funding is challenging, but with the academic and socio-emotional results we are seeing from our students, it is worth it,” Leeper says. “We want to show the larger educational community that reducing class sizes to this degree is possible in a public school environment."

“Fly to a Bubble Gum Paradise”

The children speak volumes with their smiles. In Jones’ class, vocabulary lessons invite giggles and outrageous comments from her students. When challenged to use the word “content” in a sentence, a young man volunteered “Starting this Saturday, I am content to help my mom,” while a tablemate evoked peals of laughter with “I’m content to fly to a bubble gum paradise.” The camaraderie amongst students is clear, as is mutual respect. Jones says, “With class sizes this small, students really feel safe and free to express themselves. Teachers can monitor most everything going on, and turn any disrespectful comment into a mini-lesson about how we treat one another.”

Discipline is managed by the 28 classroom teachers who use a behavior scale of “on fire” to “not cool.” The system works, and the ensuing peaceful culture is celebrated. Last year, when Leeper challenged the children to achieve eight weeks in a row of peace at school, their victory resulted in the privilege of taping him to a wall and watching while his head was shaved. Jones adds, "You wouldn't believe what a difference the daily focus on being peaceful has made on the school environment.  Students roar with cheers when they find out at weekly assembly that we've achieved a 'peace week,' and they take real pride in maintaining that record."

Progress is continuous at Kindezi, and Jones welcomes a bright future for the school she helped found.  “I see a huge amount of possibility for this school and the school model.  We are actively working on replicating the Kindezi model in other schools and demonstrating the viability of a whole new approach to public education.”

Editor’s note: To learn more about this innovative educational model, please visit www.kindezi.org.

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Michelle Valigursky