No Shortcuts

A charter school that makes the grade.

November 1999By Comments

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 offer from New York City to found a KIPP Academy in the South Bronx arrived. In the end Levin went to New York to found the school there and Feinberg stayed and founded the Houston school. He has had to scrounge for space, equipment, and teachers, but the result now is an adequate facility, a deeply committed staff, and a whole school of achieving kids.

KIPP is, as the governor said, a cheerful and hopeful place. There are frequent chants with kids beating in rhythm on their desks—the multiplication tables in rhyme, the fifty state capitals, and all sorts of mantras about reading, studying, and going to college. The teachers are enthusiastic and prepared and skillful and discussions in class crackle with electricity. But KIPP is not loose. Although the seating in classes is not rigidly formatted—sometimes in traditional rows, sometimes around tables, sometimes on pillows on the floor—discipline is intense. A visitor walking into class in most schools is an invitation for the kids to ignore the teacher to check out the new person. At KIPP a visitor can enter a classroom and nothing will change. The teacher will go on teaching and the students will keep on listening. Students are supposed to enter class and get to work even if the teacher isn’t there. One fifth-grade teacher waited outside class and peeked at the kids from time to time. Then he went inside. He asked who had worked and who had not. Some who had talked confessed, but to one who did not, the teacher said, “You just dug a hole and you have a mountain to climb. Now it’s going to take me months to believe you’re an honest student.” The motto “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch” is also a disciplinary device. There is a literal porch area in each classroom, but being on the porch means that the student is being punished for some transgression by being visibly separated from the rest of the school. The student may have to sit on the porch or wear a shirt inside out. Nor can someone on the porch go on trips or enjoy any of the smaller perks and rewards the school offers. Even the slightest deviation from the rules will bring some kind of punishment.

Feinberg defends this sometimes rough treatment because discipline is necessary for the school to work and because he thinks kids are treated too gently in school. Then they go into the world and, of course, are not treated that way. He and Levin are both tall, athletic, charismatic, and supremely self-confident. Feinberg says, “We are trying to emulate the Kinkaids and St. John’s, where success is institutionalized. There are failures there, but success is the norm. If a kid goes to a good system and fails, you say, ‘What happened?’ In the ghetto if a kid succeeds you say, ‘What happened?’ We’re trying to be what happened. We’re trying to institutionalize success.” To do that he believes a school needs high expectations, quality teachers, support from the administration, support from parents, and a huge amount of time on task. “It’s one thing to have high standards, but it’s another thing to keep to them. Some of the kids who come in here are pretty far from where we want them. But you have to be stubborn, keep the standards high, and work that much harder.”

KIPP is not the answer for every school or for every student. There are legitimate reasons why a parent or a student would not want such long hours and such strict regimentation. But it transforms the lives of the students who want it and who do the work. And for the rest of us it is an example that shows that time and effort can overcome seemingly intractable problems without requiring lots more money or new theories or expensive facilities and equipment. KIPP is a sign that says there are no shortcuts.

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