Spotlight on Alumni: Keith Frome ☆

Keith Frome, a TC Philosophy and Education alumnus (EdD, 1994), is quick to recognize how the material he studied and techniques he acquired while at TC are woven into the work he does today. The Head of the King Center Charter Middle School in Buffalo, New York; co-founder of one of the largest college access providers for low-income youth, College Summit; and a guy who can make the claim that the White House supported one of his lifelong pursuits, Keith is constantly on the move. He was very happy to get back in touch with TC and catch up with the Gazette during a layover in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tell us about your new role as the Head of King Center Charter Middle School in Buffalo, New York. The King Center Charter Middle School is an expansion of the first and oldest charter school in Buffalo, NY which is located at the King Center, a historic church on the east side of Buffalo. We just got that off the ground this year with the fifth grade. We are using it as an opportunity to work on new middle school interventions, programs and projects to get kids to start planning for college and establishing post-secondary education their expected destination at as early an age as possible. We are doing this by working with an organization I co-founded while at TC, College Summit. It is incredibly rewarding work; we have a great staff and the kids are great, but you know it is a challenge.

What are some of the challenges you are experiencing?
Number one is the incentive structure that charter schools have in that they are under incredible pressure to perform exceedingly well on state-mandated assessment tests. Children from low-income families present a specific set of issues many of which are just a matter of logistics and infrastructure. For example, one of our biggest challenges right now seems mundane but we struggle to provide kids with transportation after school, so that they can get to tutoring and participate in sports and other enrichment opportunities. But for every one of those challenges there is a concomitant joy.

Is there anything that you acquired during your time in the Philosophy and Education program at TC that has helped you tackle those challenges?
Absolutely. Last Thursday, I was the Keynote Speaker at the US Department of Education conference held around their high school graduation initiative grant. I began my hour-long speech talking about Kierkegaard, whom I had read in the Philosophy and Education program at TC with Maxine Greene and René Arcilla. I began the speech with Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” fable, which I encountered for the first time at TC and also used in my dissertation. I then told the story of Franz Kafka’s letters to a little girl who had lost her doll to illustrate the power of using one’s talent for healing. Basically, I argued that faith and generosity must be the bedrock values that must be in place before you can do any kind of good work, particularly in school reform. The folks in the room weren’t used to a policy conference beginning with reference to two existential thinkers; they initially thought it was a bit incongruous, but most agreed that it ended up being the best part of my speech. I think what TC really did was it gave me a framework for values to guide my practice and throughout my career, I have been arguing for this orientation to guide every educator’s practice.

Tell me about College Summit and how it began.
It is now one of the largest college knowledge organizations for low-income youth. We work with more than 25,000 high school students in 170 high schools throughout the country. It started in 1993, when I was doing my dissertation at TC. My best friend, JB Schramm, whom I met at Harvard before coming to TC, was working at a teen center in Washington, DC. He had four high school students who wanted to go to college but had no idea how to do it.  I remember a few didn’t really have high grades and some hadn’t even taken the SATs. Once I met them, I knew they had great stories to tell and plenty of grit.

We designed a writing and college knowledge workshop, which was a mixture of things I learned at Harvard and a bit of what I picked up from Maxine Greene regarding the idea of authenticity and at the end of our weekend together, the students came up with incredible personal essays that would just blow your socks off. We helped them put together their college applications and all four got into colleges (one got into Brown) with full-rides. JB put together a team to start duplicating and adding more content to the workshops and now we do 60 around the country, servicing about 3,000 students.

Barack Obama gave part of his Nobel Prize money to College Summit, what was it like to receive that call?
It was a thrilling day. I was actually in LA and I remember being at my hotel when I got a call from Dean Furbush (College Summit President) and my friend JB. They told me they had just gotten a call from the White House and were told that Barack Obama donated part of his prize money to College Summit. It was a shock, because we hadn’t applied for it or anything; it was a great recognition.

As if you aren’t already extremely busy, is there anything else you are currently working on?
I’ve written two books on education in the past four years and I am hankering to write another book about my experiences both at College Summit and working with the team to build the charter middle school. I’m also participating in a research project with two incredible cognitive psychologists on the notion of building tenacity and grit in kids so that they persist through college. My dream is to be able to scale a 360-degree data instrument, which would include students’ academic and so called “non-cognitive” data, since we know both sides drive achievement

At the King Center, we are having the kids keep a life log and every day they do three types of writing: free-form (their aspirations and dreams); weekly plans for short-term goals; and lastly, a log of their sleep, emotional and nutritional habits. The vision is to turn this information into actionable data and systematically work with the kids at a much deeper, more holistic level. And this notion of storytelling and making meaning out of your life and seeing it as a narrative arc, are things I learned while at TC.

King Center Charter School:
College Summit:
Read Keith’s books:
What Not to Expect: A Meditation on the Spirituality of Parenting (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006, (2007 Best Book on Family Life, Catholic Publishing Association) and How’s My Kid Doing?: Practical Answers to Questions About Your Child’s Education (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008 (2009 Parenting Book of the Year Award, Foreword Magazine ).