WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO COLLEEEEEGE?” the teacher shouted.
The class of eighth-graders shouted back, “Two thousand and fourrrrr!”
Anyone who tries to guess what eighth-graders really have on their minds is going to have a difficult time, but generally speaking it is certainly not college. High school looms imposingly just ahead like a peak to be scaled. College is only a vague and distant notion. And for these particular eighth-graders, college might have seemed so distant as to be an impossibility. Their families are poor. They are nearly all either black or Hispanic. Their parents are not college graduates and many have brothers and sisters who have dropped out of school or who intend to soon. They live in neighborhoods in Houston where kids hang out in the parking lots of sagging apartment complexes and trouble is easy to find. Many are the children of recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America whose first language was Spanish and whose command of English is still uncertain. Nor have these students been selected as part of a program for the gifted and talented. Yet the school they attend—the KIPP Academy, a charter middle school—has scores as high as any middle school in Houston on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, which is required of all schoolchildren in Texas. One hundred percent of its eighth-graders passed the math and science portions of the test and 98 percent passed the reading portion. Last year’s eighth-grade graduates were awarded more than $1 million in scholarships and now attend some of the finest public and private high schools in Houston and elsewhere, including Kinkaid and St. John’s in Houston and Choate, Hotchkiss, and Phillips Academy in New England. In the swirl of conflicting theories about teaching and the politics of public education, the success of the KIPP Academy is the result of one simple, inexpensive, too-often-overlooked principle of education—hard work.
KIPP’s success (the name is an acronym for the Knowledge Is Power Program) has brought the attention of the national media, including a story this September on 60 Minutes. KIPP has also been noticed by George W. Bush, who visited there in 1998. Bush has made education a major theme of his presidential campaign. He mentioned KIPP in his first speech on education last September in Los Angeles, saying, “The skeptics of education reform should visit KIPP Academy in Houston—a charter school that mainly serves the children of Latino immigrants. KIPP refused to accept the ‘high-risk’ label, demanding high standards and hard work. Children have nine-and-a-half-hour days, class on Saturday, and two hours of homework a night. The director promises, ‘If you’re off the bus, you’re working.’ And it is an incredibly cheerful and hopeful place. When you go there, you can see the light of ambition and discovery in young eyes. You can sense the self-esteem that comes from real accomplishment.” If you allow just a bit for a politician’s effusiveness, the governor’s description of what you see when you visit KIPP is essentially accurate.
KIPP is housed in a row of temporary buildings tucked in a corner of the Houston Baptist University campus. Two hundred and ninety-one students attend grades five through eight. Hanging on walls, on doors, and in every classroom are signs repeating a few simple mottoes that form the KIPP credo: “There are no shortcuts”; “All of us will learn”; “If there is a problem, we look for a solution/ If there is a better way, we try to find it/ If we need help, we ask/If a teammate needs help, we give.” And, most prominent of all, “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.” On weekdays students arrive at 7:25 in the morning and must stay until five in the afternoon (four on Fridays). On Saturdays they arrive at 9:15 and stay until 1:05. During the summer, they attend classes for four weeks and keep the same hours. But as a kind of reward for all the long hours, the KIPP Academy takes its kids on elaborate trips—to Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, skiing, river rafting, and to the East to visit colleges.
Students apply to KIPP simply by signing a sheet of paper that says they want to attend. Then the student and the parents must sign a contract that says the student will be at school during those hours, will behave, will do all the homework every night, and will call the teachers with any problems. And with that, assuming there is room, the student is admitted. There are no entrance examinations or any requirements other than the commitments in the contract. Yet the academic requirements at KIPP are more demanding than even the most exclusive private schools. How is it that some kids are not left behind? Each year, Michael Feinberg, a co-founder of KIPP and the director of the Houston school, has the new students line up and run a fifty-yard dash. “I’m proud of you,” he says. “You all completed the race. Some of you can run faster than others, but you can all complete the race. It’s the same thing in school. Some of you will learn faster than others, but you will all learn.”
Feinberg graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991 and volunteered for the Teach for America program. While being trained in Los Angeles, he became friends with David Levin, who had just graduated from Yale. The two were both assigned to schools in Houston. After two years in ghetto grade schools they decided that the typical school program didn’t do enough to help the kind of students they were teaching. They conceived of a more rigorous program—basically the same as the KIPP program today—and persuaded the Houston school district to let them try it with one class of fifty fifth graders in the fall of 1994. Then they realized that one year was not enough and tried to persuade the district to let them found a middle school. The district stalled briefly and then relented. Meanwhile, an