Be nice. Work hard. This has been the KIPP motto since teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin opened their first Houston charter school in 1994. Since then, the Knowledge is Power program has spread to nineteen states and the District of Columbia, and has opened its doors to disadvantaged kids.
KIPP schools, organized by a school leader, typically start in fifth grade and add on a new grade each year so that the original students can grow with the program. The schools are tuition-free, open-enrollment charter schools. The original middle school founded by Feinberg and Levin in Houston has grown to include an elementary and high school on the same grounds. Inside, the halls are filled with college flags and plaques with the names of those KIPPsters who have graduated. Even the elementary school names each classroom after a different college.
While KIPP values are the same, each school is different. Traces of the school leader’s goals are manifested in the decorations on the walls and classroom atmospheres. In northeast Houston, Polaris Academy for Boys sits in a strip mall next to a CVS and an H&R Block. Polaris, one of the fifteen KIPP schools in Houston, is approaching its third year in a neighborhood where many fifth graders come in at a first grade reading level.
“When I came [to North Forest] people told me this was the wasteland of Houston,” says Shawn Hardnett, the Polaris school leader. Hardnett was extremely affected by teaching in New York where everyone was failing, and seeing the pressure this put on teachers. Coming into what is arguably one of the lowest performing African-American districts in Texas when he opened Polaris in 2007, Hardnett has done a lot to turn things around.
“We opened the school for boys and took the lowest performing demographic in the lowest performing district, and now these kids outperform the state in reading,” he says. “Most of these kids came to us afraid to read, and now they’re doing some pretty cool stuff.” Hardnett visited neighborhood locales like churches and laundromats to explain the values that KIPP teaches and the school’s inner workings to members of the community. As a result, the community’s support of the school has been immense.
The school’s academic gains in its first two years have been even more tremendous. Students entered the school testing in the 18th percentile in reading, and have now improved into the 44th. Polaris students have also moved form the 20th to the 53rd percentile in math and tested in the 87th percentile in science, the subject Texas as a state typically fails to teach well.
The teachers at Polaris have a “relentless ability to push kids and believe that every kid can do this,” Hardnett says. The key to success is a backwards approach to designing a curriculum. They engineer the curriculum to engage students, explaining why information is relevant and important. By doing so, Hardnett explains, “you’ll have a much better chance of [students] accepting this knowledge from you. Most kids toss it because they don’t get why this is important for them.”
The school goes beyond numbers and teaching with an emphasis on community and pride. The school’s character model is Frederick Douglas. Polaris Borealis is the scientific name for the North Star, which is constant and consistent in the sky and said to guide the slaves to freedom. Belief in success is an obvious and unspoken component at KIPP.
A typical day at Polaris begins at 7:20 a.m., when students arrive, eat breakfast, and attend classes, which end at 1 p.m. After a lunch break comes electives, an afternoon break, time for reading and a study hall, all before they leave for home at 5 p.m. Students take science, math, and reading classes, and participate in gym, African dance, or choir electives. KIPP students have about two hours of homework at night, as well as four hours of school on Saturday and three weeks of summer school. The longer hours allow more teaching to happen in a galvanizing environment.
The first thing that kids learn when they come in as fifth graders is how to lead a tour of the school, which instills the school’s values and helps to cultivate pride. With no locks on the lockers, as in most KIPP schools, the kids will tell you that this is a safe zone and that everything in the school is earned, even their chair and desk. When kids first come in, they sit on the floor until they earn their seat, then they earn their jackets and ties, and eventually are able to take trips and participate in extra-curricular activities. Everything is earned, and students like it that way.
“It was kind of weird to come in and sit on the floor,” says sixth grader Abram Calderon, “but it teaches us that everything in your life is not given to you.” But Hardnett insists that earning your suit and tie is not about doing something special but about diminishing bad behaviors. In the end, parents, teachers, and students have a greater appreciation for their possessions.
For sixth grader Isaac Britten, trying to earn everything and remember all the information is the hardest part of KIPP. “My teachers say it’s our choice; if you don’t want to go [to college], don’t go,” he says. “But I want to go. I have to go because you have better choices in life when you go to college and you graduate and can have a better job.”
High expectations are placed both on the kids and on the teachers, and belief in the abilities of the children is critical. Hardnett believes that children borrow the enthusiasm of their teachers until they can find their own, so he emphasizes the importance of interaction.
“One of our unspoken principles is you just don’t quit,” he says, “and when kids start falling apart, I’m in their face, I’m on their back. And what we have found is that when we do this for our lowest-performing kids in front of our highest-performing kids, it creates a classroom environment like everybody gets to give an answer here, and everybody gets to get smart in our class.”
This year, 96 percent of Polaris sixth graders passed the state exams. Just two years ago those same students had failed fifth grade.