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KIPP 3D Academy Assistant Principal Diana Soliz

KIPP 3D Academy Assistant Principal Diana Soliz often tells students education can help them overcome any obstacle.

school by school reform

by Courtenay Singer

“Everyone has a sad story,” Diana Soliz tells her graduating eighth grade students, “It's what you do with that sad story that makes you different.”

Soliz is no stranger to strife. She grew up destitute, but with determination and hard work completed college and built a successful career. Today, she has the job of her dreams – Assistant Principal at KIPP 3D Academy in Houston, a middle school serving low-income students. All of the children are minorities, and many have never before set foot in an English-only classroom.

Diana's confidence powers many students through rough patches. Struggling eighth grader Reynaldo Garcia is typical. “She tells me not to give in, to stay in the fight,” he explains. “I just get fired up… it's like a little engine in the back… like, you want to do it, and that's how I feel.”

Another eighth grader, Nancy Fuentez, who came originally from El Salvador, had lots of trouble with classes taught in English when she entered KIPP and she labored over homework until midnight and sometimes got up before dawn. She, too, found Diana Soliz a role model and a motivator. With support from Soliz and other teachers, Nancy mastered English at KIPP, did the homework, and went on to become a star student.

Soliz knew their hardships from the inside. During her own childhood, her single mother earned a piecemeal living through assembly-line factory jobs, rarely earning enough to support herself and four daughters. Soliz's youth was a blur of meager welfare checks, cut off electricity, halted phone service, and scant health care. “We didn't go to the dentist or the eye doctor, even though my sisters and I needed eye glasses,” she says.

And there were countless evictions – “more than 7,” she recalls. Her family moved to project after project, each one more dangerous than the last. For years, Soliz lived in a state of near-constant anxiety, not knowing where the family would be located the next day. “I remember coming home from school to find our belongings out on the street,” she recalls. “I felt ashamed. And I felt angry.” With no transportation and very little to eat, the family sometimes got meals from a food bank or a community center. “My mother would go several days without eating,” Soliz says. “She told us we had to make sure to eat breakfast and lunch at school, because we weren't going to have dinner.”

By eighth grade, Soliz recognized that although her exhausted mother had two or three jobs, her hard labor was not getting them far. Soliz saw that other classmates' parents' had nicer homes, better jobs, and much easier lives. Her mother worked in factories or the local Dairy Queen; her friends' parents taught AP classes at her school. “Their fingers weren't bleeding,” she says, and “they had plenty to eat.” Her friends' parents had college degrees, while her own mother had only an eleventh grade education. Soliz soon realized that this educational gap had placed a chokehold on her mother's career options.

So Diana devoted herself to academic achievement. She earned high marks, and a full scholarship to Texas A & M, where she received her degree in British History. She began her career with Andersen Consulting in San Francisco, but soon after, she learned about a nationwide teacher training and placement program called “Teach for America.” The flames of her interest sparked, she left the dry world of consulting and began to follow her passion.

From her own experience, Soliz knew that education could change the landscape of opportunity for traditionally low-income minority families, whose children she soon became passionate about teaching. “It's about equality,” she says. “The color of your skin shouldn't determine what kind of school you can go to. The color of your skin shouldn't determine how hard you have to work, or how long you're going to live.”

So Diana poured her energies into providing a solid education to low-income kids, to put them on a level playing field with more affluent children and to expand their life choices. “Education gives you the opportunity to choose what kind of job you want to have, what kind of skills you want to learn, what kind of things you want to enjoy,” she says. And in 2001, after several years with “Teach for America ” in Houston, Diana became a founding teacher at a new middle school in Houston : KIPP 3D Academy.

In the beginning, Diana spent countless hours meeting students and families, actively recruiting children to the new school, which promised to fulfill the dream of college, a rare opportunity for low-income children. For these youngsters to climb the mountain to college, everyone – teachers, students, and parents alike – was required to sign a “Commitment to Excellence” stating their obligation to do everything necessary to help the children succeed.

Soliz is one of few who had launched herself from the public housing projects to a university. And like her, most KIPP 3D middle school students are growing up in communities where finishing high school and attending college is highly unusual, where the predominant language is not English, where many parents work two or more jobs to feed their families, where money is stretched thin, and where gangs and drugs and violence have often taken root. In this cycle of poverty, hopelessness prevails.

Academically, most incoming students at KIPP 3D are unprepared for the firm structure at the school with mottos like “no exceptions – no excuses.” Let down by their former elementary schools, most KIPP 3D students enter fifth grade well below grade level in reading and math. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter schools push children by cramming a few years worth of education into this one year. One key is self-discipline: good study habits and focusing on academics. Fifth grade is “the year of discipline,” says Soliz. “We teach them to focus on the person who is talking, sit up straight, do their homework, respect one another. Our aim is that by the end of eighth grade they are disciplined to always do their homework, to ask questions if they don't understand, and to stay focused on college even when times are tough.”

Reynaldo Garcia came to KIPP as a rough street kid, who had twice been held back by fourth grade, and who had always struggled, emotionally and academically. He often found KIPP 3D's discipline and workload so crushing that his hope of college dimmed. But Diana Soliz helped him to hang on. “My first teacher I started to feel really comfortable around was Ms. Soliz,” Rey says. “She came up the way I did. She lived in the 'hood and she saw how her mother would always have to work. That's the same thing that I saw for myself and I experienced it, how the mother had to do everything… Ms. Soliz would tell us that it was hard for her to see that and….she wanted to persevere to make sure that she was the first one in her family to graduate from high school and college. And she would tell me about that. She would tell me not to give in and everything would happen and everything will come out good.”

KIPP 3D student Nancy Fuentes comes from a working class, immigrant Salvadoran family. She remembers when she first came to KIPP 3D, “they started talking about college, and I was like, ‘College? What's college?'” She had serious doubts. “I'm Hispanic, I didn't even know that much English.” But Diana Soliz helped show her the way.

Soliz has some answers for the KIPP 3D students who know personally the same churning instability of poverty, eviction, homelessness that Soliz knew as a child. The secret to success with these children, she says, is tough love and having the school provide stability. KIPP 3D focuses on being consistent, setting limits, keeping to a routine, and providing safety and security. “That's how the teachers end all of our notes to each other,” says Soliz. “Be the constant.”

The “no exceptions, no excuses” mantra is part of the structure meant to buttress each student in his or her quest towards college. “What we're doing here,” explains Soliz, “is creating a strong foundation so the student has the academic skills, the character skills, the life skills necessary to be successful at a fantastic high school, as well as college.”

It's all working. Given the sheer volume of obstacles in their paths, it seems like an impossibility to get disadvantaged students like these to focus on achieving academically at a high level. Yet by the time the average KIPP 3D students graduate from eighth grade, on national tests they're scoring in the 63rd percentile in reading, and the 91st percentile in math.

Some soar beyond their wildest dreams. After hammering away at her English skills and pushing herself academically for four years, Nancy Fuentes has earned an annual $37,000 full scholarship to Deerfield Academy, an elite college preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts.

Diana was there to hug Nancy as she got off the phone with the admissions director at Deerfield, and she was there helping to place all KIPP 3D's eighth graders in challenging high schools. She finds her satisfaction in changing lives, and society, one child at a time. And what motivates Soliz?

The answer is justice. To Soliz, KIPP is not just a network of schools, extraordinary as the schools might be. KIPP, she says, is “a social movement, and when the kids get to a point – through education – that they can make it, it's their responsibility to bring as many people along as possible.”

“It's about opportunity,” she declares. “It's about a chance. It's about opening doors. It's about generations. It's about life.”

Copyright © 2005 Hedrick Smith Productions. All rights reserved. | PBS Privacy Policy | Created September 2005