John Carter, Founding Principal, KIPP Inquire Elementary School

Prior to founding KIPP Inquire Elementary School, John Carter has been leading and teaching at KIPP STAR Harlem Elementary School where his third and fourth graders became the first cohorts at KIPP NYC to score above 75% proficiency on the ELA and math state exams in the same year. As part of our Five with the Founder series, we spoke with John about his founding KIPP Inquire Elementary School in August.

How have you developed professionally and personally leading up to founding a school?

I’ve learned how similar great leading is to great teaching. The best teachers create spaces that are collaborative, joyful, and responsive to their students. When I transitioned to being an Assistant Principal, I needed to make this true for the whole school community – students, families, and staff – not just my classroom. How do I make this community a collaborative space? How are we constantly communicating with families? How do we invest in our priorities? Our families should know and feel that Inquire is doing everything to promote their child’s development and well-being; the one thing that no one wants is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. The best school tailors itself to each student. When I think about myself as a leader, so many of those lessons that I’ve learned as a teacher have transferred over; it’s just that the audience and the number of stakeholders have been amplified to the whole school from the classroom.

Describe a new program or design element that you’re pioneering at KIPP Inquire Elementary that’s inspired by your prior teaching and leading experiences?

I have to give Brandi Vardiman [Principal of KIPP STAR Harlem Elementary where John is Assistant Principal] credit on this one! “Fostering curiosity” is the guiding principle at KIPP Inquire. There are two design ideas that we’ll implement in the first year. The first one is interdisciplinary project-based learning. Students will use what they learn in reading and math to solve a problem or do a task. So they are getting a chance to be flexible with their thinking in seeing how those disciplines speak to each other. So much of fostering curiosity is being responsive to students, and the best way to be responsive is by knowing students intimately. And that comes from small group instruction, which we do really well at KIPP STAR Harlem Elementary. This will also be true for KIPP Inquire. Because the way you foster curiosity and are able to be responsive to students is by having a smaller group and getting to know them in a way that allows them to be successful.

How will you partner with families as you design and develop KIPP Inquire?

Families are the backbone of any school. They will be a critical part of how KIPP Inquire lives its vision. We will have a monthly parent meeting with leadership where we sit down and talk about what’s going well, what needs to be tweaked, and how we invest families in what’s coming up in the school.The second thing is frequent check-ins between teachers and families. Arrival and dismissal are great micro-moments to check in. Teachers will call or text families weekly to share how their children are doing in class, how they are progressing, and what’s one thing they can do at home with their child to help them improve. Inquire will provide space where families, staff, and students can provide feedback on systems and policies, and give input on extracurriculars. I have a vision for those activities, but there may be a particular one, such as chess, that families and students want to have at KIPP Inquire.Families will also be part of the big and small celebrations. What can we do to make events a big deal for our kindergarteners that are inclusive of the whole KIPP Inquire community? We’d love to have families be a part of celebrations because that’s a huge part of the experience. The goal is to have a Family Association that can help design a calendar that works best for our founding families.

How will students experience “inquiry” at KIPP Inquire?

Inquiry is the idea of investigating the truth or knowledge by asking questions. Each day, students will go for that pursuit of knowledge. They’ll start the day in Morning Meeting exploring their own feelings and identities through social-emotional learning. Throughout the day, there will be space for “curiosity moments” where students will have the opportunity to ask questions about what they are learning. Anything that doesn’t get answered in that moment, the teacher will post on the Wonder Wall that’s in their classroom so that idea can be revisited in a future lesson or at the next Morning Meeting.In math and science, students will have a chance to explore before we teach the new content. Often, we teach first; whereas, the idea here is we’ll propose a task and then we’ll discuss it after you’ve had a chance to dive in. It gives kids a chance to really investigate without so much teacher direction, helping them expand their ability around how to ask questions, strengthen their problem-solving skills, and to self-reflect.In Guided Reading, we’ll survey students on the topics they like at several points throughout the year so teachers can select books that pertain to the topics and interests of the students in the group. The goal is for students to read texts that interest them. Because we know that when students are reading texts that are interesting to them, they not only learn more but they are able to continue to foster that sense of curiosity.

KIPP Inquire is going to be sharing a building with three other KIPP schools. That sounds like a real opportunity to partner and learn from other schools. Can you share how the KIPP Inquire community will benefit from being a part of this “campus?”

I was thrilled to hear that we’ll have four KIPP schools in the building! Dominique [founding Principal of KIPP Affirm Middle School into which KIPP Inquire Elementary will feed] and I were particularly happy since we’re together two years sooner than we thought! [KIPP Inquire and KIPP Affirm will be moving together into a brand new building in two years.] We have a real opportunity to collaborate. There’s a chance for the two elementary schools to come together to analyze data. It will be easy to conduct intervisitations between the schools and see how other schools are fostering curiosity. How are other schools doing small group instruction? In a prep period, teachers will be able to go to another floor and observe. There is a lot of power here that we’ll take advantage of.