Photography by Brandon Dill
You might say Jamal McCall’s education began as a hospital visitor. Growing up in southeast Washington D.C., McCall frequently accompanied a babysitter to a nearby hospital (where the sitter’s husband was being treated). He noticed that a pager was standard equipment for the doctors and nurses who filled the halls with activity, healing the injured and afflicted. Until that first hospital visit, McCall considered such a device strictly the tool of drug dealers. His eyes have been wide open ever since.
Since 2009, McCall has been executive director of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools. Founded in 1994, the Knowledge is Power Program has grown to more than 140 charter schools nationwide, with a seventh opening this fall in Memphis (two elementary, four middle, and one high school). “Demographics do not define destiny” is one mantra of the program, as 86 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families (95 percent are African American or Latino). More than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have entered college after graduation.
Right up to his senior year [1998-99] at Hampton University in Virginia, McCall was determined to be a pediatrician (more of that early hospital influence). He loved math and science and wanted to apply his acumen for such in a health-care environment. “Math came easy to me,” he says, “so I wanted to do something that combined math and science. But senior year, I was tutoring some students and ended up talking with their principal. He suggested teaching for a year would look good on a med-school application. So I taught for a year in the Newport News public-school system.” Three years later, still teaching, McCall put those medical dreams aside and targeted a career as a school principal.
The career transition tipped largely on the connections McCall was able to make with children being raised in less-than-ideal conditions, much like those of his own youth. “In my younger years, I ended up living in a shelter with my mother and my two older siblings,” says McCall. [His father and mother divorced when he was three.] “My first year of teaching, I looked at my student roster, and I saw the address of that same shelter. I connected with this kid. He was stand-offish, kind of insecure, but he had a lot of talent. I gave him a before-and-after: here I was, teaching. That was the first time I shared [my story] with anyone. Now I share it openly. There were connections I made with all the kids. I couldn’t teach right away; you have to build relationships first.”
After two years of teaching, McCall moved to Atlanta, only to return to Newport News after his sister, Sakia, died at age 24 from complications related to Lupus. He finally made it to Atlanta, though, where he became a founding member of KIPP WAYS Academy, serving as director of student services and assistant principal. In 2006, he got a call from the KIPP board here in Memphis, with an offer to become principal at Diamond Academy. (The city’s first KIPP school opened in 2002.)
“That’s when I first met [KIPP board member} Barbara Hyde,” says McCall. “My job then was just to see how the school would run, if we could keep the doors open. They had a full set of 5th- through 8th-graders. I was supposed to turn it around.” Still shy of his 30th birthday, McCall had realized a dream, but found himself playing a role not unlike that of Joe Clark, the New Jersey principal made famous by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film, Lean on Me.
“We were successful,” he says. “That school had the highest scores that year it had ever had. I was no-nonsense, focused on the kids. My motto was, ‘It’s not who’s right. It’s what’s right.’ I had every employee read the book Good to Great (by Jim Collins). A school is a business. I brought a professional atmosphere.”
When asked about his leadership models upon taking the principal’s job, McCall says it wasn’t necessarily another person, but more of a value structure. “What motivated me was knowing the kids deserved better, and they deserved more,” he says. “Growing up, I had to test into a rigorous middle school across town. My mom knew the school down the street wasn’t going to give us the education we needed. So this was my opportunity to help create schools in kids’ neighborhoods, so they don’t have to catch a bus across town.”
McCall estimates he had 30 people on his first staff, all of them older than himself. “Everything was data-driven,” emphasizes McCall. “I ran a tight ship. If you came to a meeting, you had to be on time. If you weren’t ready to teach, you didn’t teach that day. They thought I was a little off. But I was firm, fair, and consistent.”
After two years, McCall left to take over a KIPP program in Columbus, Ohio, only to be called back to Memphis for his current role. KIPP opened its second school in 2010, with the goal of reaching ten schools in the near future. The former teacher and principal feels like he’s found his long-term niche. “This allows me to have a bigger impact on the mission of the organization,” he says, “where it’s going academically.”
McCall has hired the principal for all seven current schools, the KIPP program now employing more than 150 people in Memphis. In identifying those tasked with leading these charter schools, McCall emphasizes character, more specifically grit. A common question when he interviews a candidate is “How many failures have you had? How many have you bounced back from? That’s what this is about. You’re going to get knocked down. But you have to have resilience, and come back the next day. If you can’t outline what your strengths and areas of development are, I know it’s going to be hard to push you, because you’re not very self-aware.”
As he builds the KIPP presence in Memphis and continues to recruit talent, McCall has found that he sells the city first. “That’s what they’ve bought into,” he says. “You can go to Washington D.C., but guess what? The work has already been done. Same for Chicago, New York. Here in Memphis, you have the chance to be a pioneer, and have an imprint on something huge.”
Among leaders McCall admires are Geoffrey Canada, the social activist who leads the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Howard Fuller, founder of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO). “They’re about creating real opportunities for kids,” says McCall. “Not just creating schools to say we’re doing something for kids, but real paths.”
Ultimately, emphasizes McCall, Memphis leaders have to spread the right word about their city, to shine a light on the elements that lead to growth and not so much on the continued trials of poverty and race. “We have to get to a place where Memphians are talking positive about Memphis,” he says. “I heard more negative moving to this town than positive. Memphis has a genuine focus on education. We haven’t figured it out, but we have a lot of people invested in public education.”