Kristin Kearns-Jordan

Year of Graduation: 
Kristin Kearns-Jordan

“The whole ecosystem of education needs to change.”

From one neighborhood to the next, and even from block to block, students in New York City can face radically different options for where they go to public school. More affluent families are often able to navigate the system and enroll their children at the most reputable schools, Kristin Kearns-Jordan ’87 says, while the less-privileged simply don’t have the same access.

It’s an inequity she noticed at her very first job after graduating from Brown in 1991. She vividly remembers mentoring high school students and being struck by this two-tiered system, in which lower-income students were being denied a fundamental tool consistent, high-level education from elementary through high school — for improving their futures. “I became focused on those inequities,” she says, “and came to believe deeply that education is the most powerful lever for achieving societal change.”

Kearns-Jordan has carried that passion for expanding educational opportunities for underserved communities for the last 25 years, from founding the Bronx Preparatory Charter School in 2000 to spending six years as executive director of the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation, which works to help students overcome socioeconomic barriers and graduate from high school. “The whole ecosystem of education needs to change, the rules need to be reset, and the quality needs to reach all kids,” she says.  

Education is the most powerful lever for achieving societal change.”

The desire to rewrite those rules drew her to take over as CEO of the Urban Assembly two years ago. Founded in 1990, the Urban Assembly is a nonprofit that developed a unique model for organizing smaller schools in New York City with a clear equity mission and in close partnership with the New York City Department of Education. In this public-private relationship, the city provides funding and the Urban Assembly schools act as innovation labs, testing and implementing a wide range of initiatives before being rolled out on a larger scale. Kearns-Jordan now oversees the organization’s network of 22 public middle and high schools (and one charter school) in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan, and its more than 9,000 enrolled students.

By the numbers

Eighty-six percent of Urban Assembly students live at or below the poverty line, and half are first- or second-generation immigrants. Access to a high-performing school should be a priority, not an obstacle, for these youth, Kearns-Jordan says, adding that she largely took for granted the quality of her own Exeter experience when she was younger. More than 80 percent of ninth-graders enter an Urban Assembly school below grade level in at least one subject, but none are turned away for prior academic performance. “For me, the equity mission comes before the education mission,” she says. “We are doing work that is good by students and also good by the system as a whole.” 

You can’t have high-quality academic learning where students don’t listen to one another."

Each Urban Assembly school has a theme, such as technology or criminal justice. Students get real-world experience through job shadowing, internships and industry partnerships related to their school’s theme, and each school has a dedicated college counselor. There is also a strong emphasis on social-emotional learning, making sure kids feel respected, secure and not afraid of bullying. “You can’t have high-quality academic learning where students don’t listen to one another, or where people feel emotionally unsafe,” Kearns-Jordan says. 

These approaches have helped the Urban Assembly make striking progress, including raising the average graduation rate for its schools to 82 percent this year.  Kearns-Jordan is excited to share programming details with other schools in New York City — and elsewhere in the country. “The impact over four years of high school is huge,” she says. “Knowing [if] a kid comes to your school, they will end up in a better place than when they arrive, that is really motivating.”  

—Karl Wirsing

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.