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Creative Path to Success

Alumnus Encourages Innovation and a Love for Learning in New York Charter Schools

By Abigail Inman

Kris Cheung (’04, hospitality management) works in an imposing building on Wall Street, a skyscraper rising from the crush of Manhattan’s Financial District. It’s surrounded by the noise and bustle of the city, but that’s part of what he loves about it.

“Just being here is exciting,” Cheung says. “There’s so much energy in the air. Everyone’s focused, everyone’s chasing their own goal.”

In Cheung’s case, that goal is transforming the world of education.

In 2010, while running an after-school program at one of the city’s largest volunteer organizations, he began to notice the inequities in the public education system. The students he was working with in Manhattan could navigate the program’s activities easily. The students in Harlem and the Bronx consistently struggled.

“That’s when it hit me. I wanted to find a place where I could really make an impact on education,” Cheung says. And he certainly has. Cheung is the chief operations officer for Success Academy, a highly competitive group of charter schools in New York. In the past five years, he has helped open almost 40 new locations. The students at these schools come from all over the city and are admitted through a random lottery process to give everyone the same chance.

 

“At the end of the day, we believe that the quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their ZIP code.”


Cheung knows firsthand how beneficial a positive educational environment can be. While getting his undergraduate degree at Cal Poly Pomona, he became very involved on campus and remembers his college experience as a time of growth and development, especially in leadership and management. That is why he has chosen to be a Financial investor in Collins College Scholarships.

“If there’s one moment I could go back to, it would be my undergrad years. I made so many mistakes, but it’s such a safe environment that I was able to learn from them. Once you’re out in the real world there’s no safety net,” Cheung says.

“I would not be where I am today without the amazing educational experience and guidance from mentors like Gary Hamilton, Margie Jones, Don St. Hilaire, Marie Porter-Royce and Donna Dannan, just to name a few.”

Now Cheung works to support this sort of creativity and experimentation from both the students and staff of Success Academy. Charter schools receive less public funding and have more flexibility to innovate without the traditional bureaucratic barriers. This means that Cheung is often working in uncharted territory.

“There is no blueprint for what we’re doing, no model for us to replicate,” he says. “We’re kind of the vanguard of the charter school movement in New York City, so we’re building the plane as we fly it.”

Success Academy serves as an example for other schools, modeling everything from longer school days to rallies that get students excited for state testing.

“I’ll get phone calls from colleagues in the field saying, ‘How are you going to do this?’ And my answer is often, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll tell you when it’s done,’” Cheung says.

The real measure of success for Cheung comes from the students. Success Academy schools serve more than 15,000 children a year and produce higher state test scores than other, often far wealthier schools in the New York City area. The focus is on creating curriculums that students enjoy, and getting them excited about learning and testing.

“We have a litmus test we like to think about – if there was no law that kids had to go to school, would our students still come?” Cheung says. “I visit our schools a lot, and when we open our doors at 7:15, there are kids sprinting to shake the hand of the principal and walk into that building to start their day.”

These sorts of moments remind Cheung what he’s working for.

“I’m very invested in what we do. I feel like everything that we’re doing at Success Academy is critical to a child’s educational experience. We want them to be valuable and conscious citizens of the world.”