Ravi Gupta, who recently founded a high-achieving charter school in Nashville, TN, says his own school days in Staten Island, NY were riddled with disciplinary problems. “The kids I grew up with were cutting class and acting up,” he says, adding that he was more than happy to run wild with the others. “It was a group thing.”
His mother eventually pulled Gupta out of the public high school he was attending because he was clearly on the wrong path. “I was getting into a ton of trouble,” says Gupta, who is now 29 years old. Like many other kids, Gupta says he was "was getting into fights and not doing my school work.”
He transferred to a local Catholic school where, thanks to a more rigid structure, Gupta pulled his grades together and went on to Binghamton University—SUNY. After flying through pre-med prerequisites and acing an LSAT, Gupta decided to spend a summer teaching rural children in Ghana, West Africa. Despite claiming he “was not a big education person,” the college student took great pride in his students’ progress. He returned to Ghana the following summer where he launched a nonprofit to help these students gather college funds.
Yet back in America, Gupta says he did not want to forge a career in education. “I never felt the politics would allow for the kind of public school to make a significant difference,” he says. “I never thought I’d go into education because I didn’t think the system would allow me to create the school necessary.”
So instead, Gupta entered Yale Law School in 2005. He split his time between his studies and working on the Obama campaign, eventually serving as assistant to Chief Strategist David Axelrod during the general election. During the campaign, he once heard Obama mention Harlem Children’s Zone [HCZ], the famous New York school project—a new and exciting concept to Gupta who had never heard of charter schools. “I started reading about them,” he says. “I thought, ‘Whoa, there is a model out there that can do this, that can take kids from any walk of life and produce excellence.’ That school pierced through the crisis of mediocrity.”
In 2009, Gupta graduated from Yale Law and took a job as a speechwriter for Ambassador Susan Rice at the United Nations. It was, in many ways, a dream job. But, one year in, Gupta’s mind kept returning to those charter schools. “Susan Rice is brilliant and talented and she attracts brilliant and talented people,” he says. “They could replace me any day with someone who could get the job done. What I realized there was if I started school, that’s a contribution where there isn’t anyone else.”
After one year at the UN, Gupta bid farewell and accepted a fellowship at Building Excellent Schools in Boston. At this time (April 2010), Ambassador Rice gave a speech to Fort Hamilton High School students: “Like many of you, [Ravi Gupta] was raised by a single parent. Now let me tell you that boy got into a lot of trouble when he was your age. He was even arrested for assault after getting into a fistfight in high school. But he woke up one day and realized that skipping class and hanging out on the street corner was a one-way ticket to failure. So he got his act together and for the remainder of his high school years, he set new goals and he stuck to them.
And Ravi got himself accepted into college-and went on last year to graduate from Yale Law School. I'm very proud of Ravi. And guess what Ravi wants to do next? He's going to start a charter school. He would love to do it in Staten Island, but he's going to do it wherever he can make it work. He did it and so can you.”
Ambassador Rice told TakePart how impressed she is by her former speechwriter's work. "Ravi has the work ethic, the intelligence, and the credentials to do anything he wants, and what he’s chosen to do is serve his community and country," she says.
In early 2011, Gupta headed to Nashville, TN, intent on starting his own school in a city that encourages innovative charters. Using the grassroots politics he learned on the Obama campaign, he went door-to-door introducing himself and building a coalition of supporters. He recruited a staff from all over the country.
Schools are a polygraph for the soul. I think they are a reflection of life.
In the fall of 2011, he opened the doors to Nashville Prep, a charter school that will eventually teach grades 5-12 (starting with 5th, adding one year at a time). Approximately 85 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. After just one year, Gupta reports that the majority of his 5th grade students (many of whom entered below level) have tested far above average on the city-wide tests in all subjects, and more Nashville Prep students tested proficient or advanced than any other charter in Nashville.
Nashville Prep, which has implemented a number of innovative classroom technologies and data processing systems, has a significantly longer school day (7:30 am to 5pm) and children attend classes every other Saturday.
Greatly important is the school’s focus on behavior. Looking back to his days in the Catholic high school that helped him turn his own life around, Gupta says he has instituted a “no excuses” policy at his school. “There are tough conversations,” he says. “We tell them, “If you don’t shape up you’re going to leave.’ But we’re constantly focused on what will happen if things go well.” It is this strong atmosphere of rules and community, he says, that will help Nashville Prep scholars achieve a sense of character and leadership that will serve his students well as they head to college—the ultimate goal.
“Schools are a polygraph for the soul,” Gupta says. “I think that they are a reflection of life. All of life’s challenges play out in a school environment.”
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Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.
- Ravi Gupta