Here’s Why ‘Work Hard, Be Nice’ Isn’t Enough

By Nathan D. Woods, M.Ed

I am a KIPP alumnus, former teacher, a life-long KIPPster and I am in full support of KIPP’s decision to change their motto, “Work hard. Be nice.”

Last week, I read a couple of critical opinion pieces about KIPP’s decision that omitted the most important voices—those of KIPP students, families, alumni and teachers. I have no doubt in my mind that KIPP’s standards have not changed and they continue to create joyful, academically excellent schools like the one I attended—KIPP DC.

THE REALITY FOR MANY OF MY FELLOW KIPP STUDENTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY IS THIS TERM FAILS TO ADDRESS THE SYSTEMIC INEQUITIES AND INJUSTICES THAT MANY OF US FACE.

On its surface, the slogan is seemingly benign. But the reality for many of my fellow KIPP students across the country is this term fails to address the systemic inequities and injustices that many of us face. As a member of the KIPP family for more than 15 years, I have a fervent and firsthand understanding of the intentions behind the motto, but I also understand the unintended, harmful impact of it.

WORKING HARD AND BEING NICE WASN’T ENOUGH.

My story, and countless stories of Black and brown youth in under-resourced communities, is why I support this decision. For many of my peers with whom I attended middle school at KIPP DC, working hard and being nice wasn’t enough. We showed up to school every day, ready to work hard and collaborate with our classmates and teachers to grow our brains. After school, we went home to work hard on hours worth of homework. We even showed up to Saturday school with the same mindset, but that wasn’t enough.

Some of us didn’t make it to our high school graduations, and it wasn’t because we didn’t work hard and weren’t nice. Some of us had to drop out of school to take care of siblings or find a job to help put food on our family’s table. Some of us didn’t make it because violence struck and lives were taken while getting to or leaving from the same school building where we were taught to work hard and be nice in order to be successful.

I rose despite injustice and oppression, and today I use my voice and knowledge to make our country and world a place where children are free to create the futures they want. While at KIPP, I received an amazing education, and with the support of my teachers and the KIPP Through College and Career program, I graduated from Syracuse University. Following graduation, I joined Teach for America and returned back to KIPP to become a teacher and support the many students and families from my neighborhood in hopes that they will live a life of choice like I was afforded.

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