Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Starting from scratch

A young principal spends her summer pounding the pavement in search of students to fill her new school.

By Joanne JacobsContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2004


"I will arrive at KIPP He-ar-et-wood Ac-a-de-mee-a every day by 7:25 a.m. Monday- Friday." Fourth-grader Delia Bustamante struggles to read the student's "commitment to excellence" for the charter middle school she'll start later this month.

Skip to next paragraph

"We have a saying: If you're five minutes early, you're already late," says Sehba Zhumkhawala, founder, principal, and study-skills teacher for brand-new KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose's low-income Alum Rock district.

Delia's parents agree to get her to school by 7:20 a.m. Time is precious at KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) and the whole idea is to give students as much time in school as possible. The school day at KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a half day on alternate Saturdays.

It may also extend late into the evenings. Delia can call her teachers till 10 every night, including on weekends and vacation days. "I'll also give you my cellphone number," Ms. Zhumkhawala says. "You can call me 24/7. You can call me at 3 a.m."

Zhumkhawala is known in Alum Rock as "The Woman Who Asks Questions." To recruit students for her school, she walks the streets asking, "Do you know any fourth-graders?" That's how she met Delia.

Public school principals generally don't spend their summers recruiting students for their schools. Most often they're appointed to schools where decisions about location and student enrollment have already been made and often even the hiring and firing of faculty is beyond their purview.

But with the birth of the charter-school movement has come a new kind of administrator with a new set of duties and concerns. Educated at top US schools, Zhumkhawala, at 28, is idealistic, ambitious, and eager to shake up the system. Before she can run her new school, however, she has had to create it from scratch - sell the community on the idea, raise money to supplement state funding, find a site, hire teachers, and, now, hardest of all, persuade parents to trust her with their children.

But if the charter-school movement means a sometimes staggering set of new responsibilities for principals like Zhumkhawala, its intent is to create options for families like the Garcia-Bustamantes.

Delia's parents attended elementary school in Mexico. Her father works in a warehouse. Her mother, Alicia Bustamante, makes and sells tamales.

"I don't want Delia to end up like us," says Delia's father, Geronimo Garcia. "She tells me she wants to be a lawyer or a doctor. I want her to be something."

If Delia and her family opt for the new KIPP school, it means she will work longer hours and be expected to meet higher standards than at the neighborhood public school. But Delia is just the kind of student - low-income, minority, and motivated - that Zhumkhawala is seeking.

Zhumkhawala's own background is completely different from that of the students she now hopes to recruit.

She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in San Jose. Her father, who emigrated from India, worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley. Her mother, a college instructor in Pakistan, was a teacher. They sent her to private schools.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in English and psychology, Zhumkhawala joined Teach for America, which recruits bright graduates for two-year teaching stints.

For two years she taught English at a low-performing Houston middle school. "It was a great experience," she says. Five feet tall and slender, Zhumkhawala had no trouble keeping order. She respected her students, and they respected her. "Kids want strict, fair teachers," she says.