This article originally appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Harker Magazine.
Every night Sehba Ali ’90 and her family – her husband, three children and two parents – go around the dinner table and share how they helped someone or how someone helped them that day. The importance of giving back and helping others is etched in their family story. This passion can be seen well beyond the dinner table, as Ali is the CEO and superintendent of KIPP Houston Public Schools, a network of high-performing public charter schools located in educationally underserved communities.
“It’s such an honor and privilege to work with our families and KIPPsters,” she said. “I get way more than I give, and I’m definitely a better person because I get to be around these students who have such persistence and grit.”
Her path to KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) began after she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and decided to apply to Teach for America. She walked into the career office and saw the vision statement: “One day all children will have the opportunity to have an excellent education.”
“This really stood out and resonated with me,” she remembered. “I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do.” So she taught in the classroom, earned her master’s degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and founded KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose.
When Ali was founding KIPP Heartwood Academy, she tried to incorporate the best aspects of her experience at Harker and Castilleja School. “She was a wonderful young lady who worked hard and was always positive,” said Howard Saltzman, one of Ali’s elementary school teachers. “It doesn’t surprise me that she has gone on to have such success in her career.”
Ali attended Harker from kindergarten through eighth grade and then went to Castilleja for high school. (Harker did not have its upper school yet.) “I credit Harker with setting me up for success in life with a phenomenal education and great teachers who helped me love learning,” Ali said. “I often imagine the impact that Harker students could make in the world, and I hope they challenge themselves to think about what they can do to build a better tomorrow.”
Ali said Harker truly made a difference in her family’s life. When her father lost his job and they couldn’t pay the tuition, Harker president Howard Nichols and his wife, current board chair Diana Nichols , met with her parents and worked out a plan to keep Ali and her brother at Harker. “It was incredibly pivotal for me to watch Harker step up and help our family in our moment of need,” Ali remembered. “This kindness followed by community service when I was at Castilleja truly inspired me to help all students from every background.”
And that is what she does each day when she goes to work representing 28 KIPP schools that serve about 14,500 students in Houston. College graduation among KIPPsters is nearly 50 percent compared to 10 percent of students in the communities they serve. KIPP teaches its students that both academic and character skills are necessary to thrive in college and lead choice-filled lives. KIPP students achieve their dreams by following two important rules: Work hard. Be nice. This philosophy is infused in KIPP, from the youngest student to the most hard-working superintendent.
When John Holt left his job as a communications assistant with the Houston Spurs to work for KIPP nearly a year ago, he wrote an insightful blog post titled “From the Spurs to KIPP.” He talked about a message given by Ali on his first day.
“Her words were warming to hear, especially as she closed by encouraging each of us to reach out to our families and let them know how much we love them,” he wrote. “When I walked toward my car and prepared to head home following [Ali’s] words, I took a few seconds to reflect on the overall day. No matter how I tried to view or portray it, the day’s entirety circled back to a common theme of family.”
Ali’s love of family, whether her KIPP family or her immediate family, is what leads her to work hard, be nice and make a difference.
As we were preparing our story on Sehba Ali, Hurricane Harvey caused devastating floods in the Houston area. Ali said that KIPP is providing aid directly to the 1,400-plus KIPP families impacted by the floods. Those who would like to help may donate at www.kipphouston.org/donate (“family emergency fund”). Ali partnered with Mark DiBella, the CEO of YES Prep Public Schools, and Mike Feinberg, co-founder of KIPP, to pen an editorial for the Houston Chronicle, which was published on Sept. 27, 2017: “After Harvey, we shouldn’t expect any less of our schools ” http://bit.ly/2jrmqdq
Contributor Vikki Bowes-Mok is also the executive director of the community nonprofit Compass Collective.