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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mike Feinberg's voicemail has two greetings: One for friends and colleagues, who are cheerfully asked to leave a message for "Mike," and one for students, who are mock-sternly reminded that they are speaking to "Mr. Feinberg," that they are on the path to college, and that he will be available to give them his full attention as soon as he can.
That particular brand of friendly discipline is the cornerstone on which Feinberg and his partner, David Levin, have built their "Knowledge is Power Program" into one of the most successful charter school networks in the US.
In just 15 years, the pair - still young at 40 and 39, respectively, have expanded their KIPP approach from a single fifth-grade program in Houston to 66 schools in the US - along with a new partner school set to open later this year in Nahariya.
"It felt like we were going to the 51st state," Feinberg joked of his visit to the northern city, noting that in every new place he and Levin have gone, teachers and parents have protested that they faced unique circumstances that were holding their children back from succeeding in school.
"What we have learned is that they're all 'yes, buts' - the question is never can we fix them, but will we," Feinberg told The Jerusalem Post.
On Thursday, Feinberg and Levin were honored in New York with the Charles Bronfman Prize, a recognition given annually to people under 50 whose humanitarian work represents Jewish values.
"We're trying to honor heroes for the next generation of heroes - people who are still young and trying to do things, so the next generation of Jews has people to look up to," said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
Feinberg and Levin got their start by looking up to the people behind Teach for America, the volunteer program that brought them together in the early 1990s.
"They helped awaken a generation," Feinberg told the Post. He joined Teach for America after spending a year volunteering at an absorption center in Netanya for Ethiopian children brought to Israel in 1991's Operation Solomon.
With Levin, he developed an approach to improving the performance of students in low-income areas that is based on extended school hours, maintaining strict performance targets, having teachers help families learn how to support their children's educational needs - and a few simple lessons.
"Work hard, be nice, don't take shortcuts," was how Feinberg summed it up.
The program has produced results that have captured attention across the US, with about 80 percent of KIPP school graduates going on to college, versus fewer than 15% of students from surrounding public schools.
A separate KIPP Foundation also offers an intensive training course at Stanford University for teachers - including Eran Dubovi, who spent months in the US absorbing the KIPP model to bring back to the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, which will run the school in Nahariya.
Feinberg said he and Levin planned to give some of their $100,000 prize money to the Israeli start-up, which will serve both Jewish and Arab pupils.