KIPP Colorado Schools is excited to welcome Jess Simpson as the new school leader at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School. We sat down with Mrs. Simpson to learn more about her journey leading up to KIPP and her vision for the school.
KIPP Colorado (KC): Thanks for sitting down with us! Tell us about your education and where you grew up.
Jess Simpson (JS): I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, right outside of Chicago. My mom was a teacher, so education was a big focus in our household. I loved school. I loved to learn, and I was a nerd. I started to notice that you could really tell the difference a good teacher makes. I remember teachers who turned me on to a love of learning, and the years where I felt empowered to learn were the years where I definitely stretched the most.
KC: How about high school?
JS: I am a big fan of my high school. It had a huge student body—something like eight or nine hundred students per grade. It was very competitive, but I felt grateful because it provided opportunities for programs like AP classes. I found myself drawn to science and math, because you could ask questions and figure out how things worked. I also played basketball and lacrosse and sang in choir.
KC: Was there a teacher who really inspired you during your education?
JS: My most influential teacher to this day is my choir director in middle school and high school. She was fiercely loving and fiercely demanding in a way that I want to show our students. When you show these traits, you can lift kids up towards their dreams.
KC: Where did you go to college?
JS: I went to College of Wooster, where I majored in biology and minored in classical studies and physical education. I went to graduate school at Columbia University in New York.
KC: Did you go straight to grad school after graduating from college?
JS: I didn’t. I joined Teach for America (TFA) after college, and I was a biology teacher at Denver North High School for a couple years. I was also a department chair there during my TFA years. It gave me a lot of respect for our schools in Denver. I found that you could find things that are fundamentally good in their foundations at each school. My time there ingrained in me the importance of community and partnership with parents and students.
KC: What brought you out to Colorado?
JS: I had always wanted to live out here. My parents raised us to love the outdoors. We didn’t do many big trips growing up, but we would go camping a lot as a family. We were going up to Michigan and Wisconsin on the weekends, and I thought it would be really cool to live in a place where I can see a career that fulfills my purpose and I can also live in a way that I want to live.
KC: How did you get your start at KIPP Colorado?
JS: I got a call from a friend in 2012 to check out an organization called “KIPP” that I had never heard of. I hadn’t been looking to make a career move, but through conversations with her over time, I was curious, and thought I’d give it a try. Why not?
KC: When did you go back to grad school?
JS: After a few years of teaching and leading as department chair at KIPP, I felt the pull to keep learning. I had an amazing coach in my first few years as a teacher, so I learned firsthand how powerful it can be for a teacher to have a strong coach. I wanted to work on that for myself and develop the skills to be a good coach for others, so I joined a program called Summer Principals Academy at Columbia’s Teachers College.
KC: What was that like?
JS: Essentially you go to New York for a summer and do a year’s worth of coursework, and then you have several projects that you work on over the course of the year. Those were more experiential learning—things like managing a school budget. Then you go back a second summer and design a school, and you basically complete a full application to open a new school.
KC: And now you’re a school leader! So when you think about KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, what makes it unique?
JS: I would say it’s our rituals, our commitments, and our values. This is a school with a legacy and a tradition of excellence, and there are a lot of rituals that we have that go along with that. Our students talk about our values and our TIGER principles a lot. Last year we came together as a school and took a critical look at these values, and out of those conversations came some updates to how we define some of these principles to reflect who we are now. We also included some new values, like justice, purpose, and integrity.
Lastly, I think one of the things that makes KDC special is a commitment to excellence and shared goals and vision. I feel really proud to come to work every day and stand alongside my colleagues. When we all share that commitment to what matters for our students, it makes the work feel more joyful and lighter.
KC: What’s ahead this year at KDC?
JS: At our core, we are strong. A lot of the practices that we’ve had year-over-year that have come to define what it means to be a KDC Tiger will stay the same. Our world is constantly changing, and we will innovate and we will change to meet the demands of our world. But, I don’t believe that change just for the sake of change always serves our best interest.
KC: Sounds like a great year ahead for KDC. Last question. What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
JS: I just got married. I love spending time with my husband—we try to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders. We love spending time outdoors. That could be a competitive game of spike ball or a hike or a mountain bike ride. I love being active and also having some space for peace and quiet.
KC: Thanks, Jess!