Former Oklahoma City charter school student returns as teacher

ByTim Willert

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By the time Johnesha Hawkins was a seventh-grader at KIPP Reach College Preparatory in northeast Oklahoma City, Tracy McDaniel knew the student had the right stuff.

McDaniel, the school’s founding principal, had so much faith in the 12-year-old’s ability to lead that he asked her to help the adults keep an eye on about 60 students during a trip to Washington, D.C.

As a member of the second class to come through KIPP, a high-performing public charter school that serves low-income kids, Hawkins was studious and displayed good character. She was honest and trustworthy; her grit and determination were evident.

“There are things at KIPP that we can teach, like skill sets,” McDaniel said recently. “There are things we cannot teach, like the qualities of a person.

“She had all those by the eighth grade. She was better than a lot of adults that I’ve met, so I wanted those kind of qualities to come across in the classroom.”

McDaniel, now in his 14th year, was patient. He waited until Hawkins, 22, graduated from Southwestern Oklahoma State in May before making her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“I knew the character she had and so I always wanted her to be a teacher,” he said. “I had no doubt in my mind that Johnesha would be teaching here this year.”

McDaniel, though, had some convincing to do.

“He proposed it to me and at first I said no,” Hawkins said. “But then I had to stop and really think about my purpose and what I was supposed to be doing in life, and this is it.

“Honestly, teaching was always something that I said I would not do. But over the last couple of years my passion has centered around kids and making sure that they receive everything that they need to be successful in life.”

Last month, Hawkins became the first of McDaniel’s former students to return as a teacher.

“In the classroom, I see myself and my classmates,” she said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. I’ve done it.

“I think the first day (my students) didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know how to respond or how to react. Today it’s kind of setting in for them; they don’t necessarily (act out) because they know I know. It’s not a secret.”

The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) network boasts 183 schools in 20 states and is planning to add five more schools in Oklahoma City by 2021. McDaniel says he is recruiting other former students to come back and teach.

“It’s the culture. The kids have bought into the culture and implemented that in their own making. It became their code,” he said. “I want them to instill that in the kids they will teach. The kids need to see a role model.”

McDaniel attributes the school’s success — A’s on the last three state report cards and a national Blue Ribbon School distinction in 2012 — to hard work and high expectations.

Students benefit from extended school days (two hours longer on average than traditional district schools) and Saturday instruction.

Hawkins called her experience at KIPP “life-changing,” and said it prepared her for the challenges she faced as a high school student at Casady, a private school in Oklahoma City where her character was put to the test.

“Sitting in class and maybe being the only African-American was something that I definitely had to get used to, especially coming from KIPP,” she said. “Casady made me grow up. Casady really challenged me in a lot of different areas that encouraged growth: socially, mentally and emotionally.

“Had I not been challenged, I would not be open to new things, new ideas — I wouldn’t be right here where I am right now.”

In addition to McDaniel, Hawkins, a sixth-grade writing teacher, is working alongside one of her former instructors, Kathy Raber. Hawkins’ mother is also a first-year teacher at the school.

Raber, now a reading instruction coach, said Hawkins is always trying to improve herself.

“Johnesha just keeps getting better and better,” she said. “She was one of those kids that always looked to do the right thing. If a student needed help, she was there to give it; if a teacher needed help, she was there to give.”