Distinguished Young Alumni Award
David Wayne Jernigan ’00
Some numbers define you: age, income, GPA, IQ. David Jernigan believes ZIP code shouldn’t be one of them.
David, the executive director for KIPP charter schools in Metro Atlanta, combined his business degree from Kenan-Flagler with his passion for guiding disadvantaged children to take charge of their destiny.
The youngest of three children whose parents didn’t go to college, David grew up in ElizabethCity. His parents made it clear that if he wanted to go to college, he’d have to find a scholarship. David put his mind to it and won what is now the Morehead-Cain Scholarship. His sister, Janet Jernigan, says that while she and their older brother were out with friends, David was home studying. He even helped her with her high school term papers while he was still in middle school. His choice of a career in education doesn’t surprise her.
Said Janet, “It’s like he enjoyed school so much, he didn’t want to leave.”
His reputation as a sharp guy with a kind heart grew at Carolina, where he advocated for improved housing conditions, including apartment-style residences and opening the all-male dorms of Old East and Old West to women. Early on he got leadership positions the housing office normally opens only to seniors or graduate students. Emily Williamson ’99, who worked with David in housing advocacy, attributes his success to his ability to engage diverse people in the work that needs to be done. And he’s an incredibly hard worker, she said. “He has a quiet confidence and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals.”
As part of the Morehead summer enrichment experience after his freshman year, David taught at an inner-city school in Houston and found his calling. He joined Teach For America after graduation and was assigned to a low-performing school in Atlanta. Even though he led his students to do well enough to receive a national award presented by then-first lady Barbara Bush, they were zoned to go on to a high-school dropout factory.
“It seemed unfair,” David said, “that the ZIP code they were born into would determine their life chances.”
David heard of the success of the KIPP charter schools in Texas, and he organized a KIPP middle school in Atlanta in 2003, the same year he received Kenan-Flagler’s Distinguished Young Alumnus Award. He was 24 and had the title of principal, but his job description covered every position, depending on the need on any given day. Along the way, he earned a master’s degree in educational administration. By 2008, his KIPPAcademy had been cited as the No. 1 “No Excuses School” in Georgia.
Leadership for David is not asking others to do something he wouldn’t do himself. And there’s little he hasn’t done. As principal, he’d jump in to teach a class when a teacher was out, even if it meant leading kids in basketball drills on a wet playground in his dress shoes. And wearing a business suit didn’t stop him from cleaning up after a sick child. He’ll take kids for a haircut or a meal. As he told a counselor at his school, you feed teenage boys, and they will tell you a lot of things.
His first hire at KIPP, Jamall McCall, believes David’s unfaltering concern for children fuels his success. In the early days of organizing KIPP, when David and McCall worked out of an office at a YMCA in a high-crime neighborhood, a couple of boys picked David’s pocket.
“His wallet, his keys, access to his whole life was gone,” Jamall said, “but he was worried about those two kids, what about their lives made them do that, where they went to school.”
His second hire at KIPP, Sabrina Player, calls David an extreme Type A. He pushes his staff as hard as his students, but not as hard as he pushes himself, she said. David’s car is routinely the last one out of the parking lot at night. He doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations with a teacher performing below his standards. Yet he’ll take time out to deliver a restaurant meal to spare a recuperating teacher from hospital food.
His sense of urgency is as inspiring as it is annoying. He’s a perfectionist who doesn’t like to lose, and the kids love him for it. After a fire damaged the school last year, about 100 former students came back to help with the move into a temporary space.
At 29, David expanded the network of KIPP schools. He organized and now oversees four KIPP middle schools, and this fall he opened his first KIPP high school.
David’s first crop of fifth-graders in 2003 graduated high school last May; 85 percent of them went on to college, in a ZIP code where typically only 20 percent make it to college. One of David’s former students, Peyton Chambers, got into some trouble in the sixth grade. David kept on him until he’d turned himself around. A couple years later, Peyton earned a spot in an elite private high school. Peyton says he can tell “Mr. Jernigan” cares about his students by his actions.
“He never gives up,” Peyton said. “He says he’ll do something, and he does it.
“I’d give him the award for being a man of his word.”
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