This story first appeared in the Winter edition of the Harker Quarterly.
By Casey Near
Sehba (Zhumkhawala) Ali ’90 is the founder of the highly successful KIPP Heartwood Academy and serves as the chief academic officer for all KIPP Bay Area schools. After graduating from the University of California, Ali earned an M.Ed. from Stanford, where she first joined the KIPP program. She recently wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek about the state of education, and we were able to catch up with her about her early days at Harker and the beginning of her lifelong passion.
Q: When you were at Harker, did you dream of doing what you do now?
A: In fifth grade at Harker, my teacher Ms. [Mary] Tomassello had our class write letters to ourselves about what we wanted to do when we grew up. She mailed these letters back to us when we graduated from college. I have kept my letter in my desk drawer at work since I started KIPP Heartwood seven years ago. In my letter, I wrote about how I dreamed of being a teacher one day. While I never thought as far as starting a school or being a principal, I did want to be a teacher. Even now, I consider myself a teacher first.
Q: What do you find most exciting about your career or current project?
A: I started a school because I believe that kids from poor neighborhoods are just as smart as the kids I grew up with, and given the opportunity, they will perform just as well. Over 90 percent of our students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. When I started the school, I believed it would take a generation of graduates from our schools graduating from college and coming back to their communities to change the expectations for kids in East San Jose. I was wrong. I am seeing that change in families’ expectations in ONE generation. Younger siblings of our students fully believe that they will do well in school, go to college and graduate from college. It is not a question for them of if they will go to college but where they will go. The rapid change of expectations amongst our families and the growth I see daily in my students inspire me to keep doing this work every day.
Q: What personal traits make you successful at what you’re doing?
A: Many of the traits that make me successful today are those that I learned at Harker and Castilleja. I learned to persevere through difficult challenges, stand up for what I believe, be courageous about thinking out of the box and being a trailblazer, look in the mirror and reflect often, serve my community, and finally, follow my passion.
Q: What in your life so far took you the longest time to learn?
A: I’ve learned so many lessons, and I have so much more to learn. I think what’s been hard for me to digest is failure. I truly believe we learn most from failure, but it’s hard to reconcile that when I fail at something that is important to me.
Q: What’s on the top of your personal and professional “lists” right now?
A: I have been blessed with two wonderful daughters and a loving husband. They are my top priority right now. Family is incredibly important to me. Professionally, I am really committed to training and coaching the school principals I manage so they can lead schools that are excellent and to which I would be proud to send my own kids.
Q: Tell us something surprising about yourself.
A: I don’t think this is surprising to those who know me well, but at the end of my career, my dream is to go back and teach at a KIPP school.
Q: What advice do you have for current Harker students?
A: Follow your passion and give back as much as you can to your community. To me, life is not how much money I make but how much I do to improve the lives of those around me and bring change to the world.