A new charter school brings Yale-inspired vision to St. Louis
When Gavin Schiffres ’15 B.A. set out to launch a charter school in St. Louis, he drew inspiration from his undergraduate experience at Yale. Kairos Academies — opening this summer — will admit 6th graders to start, with other grades to follow. The school emphasizes self-directed study and project-based learning, with teachers serving as one-on-one tutors. Kairos will operate year-round, five weeks on and two weeks off, coordinating with local programs to offer affordable care on off weeks.
“We’re trying to create a diverse setting that reflects a 21st-century liberal arts education like Yale, or like you would find in co-working spaces,” says Schiffres.
At 25, Schiffres is one of the youngest founding members of a charter school, but he’s part of a long line of Yale alumni who have launched alternative schools. There’s Dave Levin ’92 B.A., cofounder of KIPP schools, of which there are now 224 — from early childhood centers to high schools — across the country. There’s Dacia Toll ’99 J.D., co-CEO and president of Achievement First, which has 36 public charter schools in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. There’s Max Ventilla ’02, ’06 MBA, CEO and cofounder of AltSchool, for-profit schools focused on tech and personalized learning. There’s Graham Browne ’15 MBA, founder and executive director of the Forte Preparatory Academy Charter School in Elmhurst, New York. And there’s Neerav Kingsland ’07 J.D., former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, a nonprofit focused on improving the city’s schools.
Schiffres is interested in modernizing the public school model for the information age. “If we were to reverse engineer what adults need to be successful in today’s economy — to be able to manage their time, delegate authority, and run small organizations and teams — what would the K-12 experience look like?” he asks.
Exploring education at Yale
Schiffres was one of a select group of students in the Yale Education Studies Program, which launched in 2013. The program is one of four multidisciplinary academic programs at Yale, and allows admitted applicants to study a topic in parallel to their major — as close as Yale students come to having a minor.
“Our students finish with an idea of the social and policy context of education,” says Mira Debs ’13 M.A./M.Phil., ’16 Ph.D., executive director of Education Studies. About 40 students apply for 20 available spots each year. Debs says: “The students come in with a lot of different educational interests. We have the flexibility to support and customize their experiences.”
As an undergraduate, Schiffres worked for the Ulysses S. Grant Foundation program for New Haven middle schoolers, a six-week, low-cost, academic summer enrichment program held at Dwight Hall at Yale. “It was my first experience working with kids,” Schiffres says. “I saw the huge inequities between my experience and theirs.” He then fought for education reform with the nonprofit Students First, and volunteered with Bulldogs in the Big Easy working with underprivileged students in New Orleans. For his capstone project, he researched best practices for public schools. “I looked at cutting-edge reforms, how kids learn, school calendars, the physical space,” Schiffres says. “It was a real luxury to spend a full year looking into how to do that well.”
Bringing a new school model to St. Louis
It was during a post-Yale Teach for America experience in St. Louis that Schiffres connected with Kairos cofounder Jack Krewson, son of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, as well as Hugh Eastwood ’00 B.A., ’06 J.D., a local civil rights litigator and president of the Yale Club of St. Louis. Eastwood is now the board president of Kairos.
“I did not used to be particularly interested in the schools piece of strong cities,” Eastwood says. “It took me a long time to understand on a deep level the vital importance of high-quality schools to thriving neighborhoods and to unlocking the potential of the workforce.” He notes that growing up in Toronto, he had opportunities to attend the best schools, and he wants kids in his adopted hometown to have the same options. “I liked that the Kairos model has aspects of Montessori — of mastery being the constant,” says Eastwood, “and that it was preparing students to succeed not just academically, but personally.”
To win over community members, Schiffres enlisted the help of current Yale students, including Sara Harris ’19, who comes from the small town of Glide, Oregon, and has made rural education and college access her focus as a participant in Education Studies. Harris spent her summer in St. Louis talking to community leaders, answering questions about the Kairos model, and canvassing neighborhoods. “In underserved areas, a lot of students are struggling to survive and to complete the necessary steps to get into college, and the more nuanced skills fall by the wayside,” Harris says. “Kairos is trying to build self-advocacy, time management, and soft skills, so they have a model of meeting with academic coaches and setting goals.”
Anna Kane ’21 came to Yale by way of Wisconsin, the eldest of 10 children. She attended a charter high school and says she was drawn to intern with Kairos because she is “inspired by the enormous good that quality education can do.” She helped Kairos establish its digital presence, and says the experience offered her “an amazing crash-course on what it’s really like to work — and be a disruptive, positive force — in education.” Kane adds: “After last summer, I am committed to ensuring that education is at the core of any and all future work I do.”