KIPP has earned widespread praise for dramatically improving the prospects of struggling students. It's trying to repeat that success with a new school in Columbus.
Columbus Charter Schools: The hot newcomer
Eight, sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two. Forty, here we go, here we go now.
About 70 fifth-grade students dressed in khaki pants and red shirts chant in unison during a special gathering while a math teacher pumps her fist in the air to keep the beat.
Forty-eight, fifty-six, sixty-four, seventy-two,
Eighty, we did it, Yo! (clap, clap)
Eighty-eight, ninety-six, here comes the remix!
At KIPP Journey Academy, a highly anticipated new charter school near the intersection of Cleveland Avenue and Hudson Street, rituals, rules and traditions abound, such as the chanting of multiples. Signs throughout the former Linden Park Elementary remind students to be on their best behavior. To become a KIPPster, a student must accept and adopt this culture, which is aimed at supporting the KIPP values. They aren't easy to forget, since they're written on the sleeve of the uniform: teamwork, respect, kindness, perseverance and academic excellence.
The values support the goal: sending students to college.
KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, has built a national reputation on its success in improving the prospects of the most challenging population of schoolchildren: poor and minority kids who by the fifth grade already are performing one or more years below grade level. Started in 1994 in Houston by two young teachers who had just completed tours of duty in Teach for America, the school attracted the attention of Gap co-founders Donald and Doris Fisher. They created the KIPP Foundation, which has supported the development of 65 additional KIPP schools nationwide. The foundation recruits and trains teachers for KIPP schools and operates a yearlong leadership program for prospective principals and other school leaders.
The schools are run locally (here, it's by KIPP Central Ohio). But common to all is the KIPP model, which demands that students spend up to 60 percent more time in school than their peers in traditional schools. The school day runs from 7:30 am to 5 pm on weekdays and from 9 am to noon on alternate Saturdays, and KIPPsters go to school for three weeks in the summer as well. Teachers must commit to do "whatever it takes" to ensure kids learn. In addition to the long hours in class (they earn 15 to 20 percent more than their public school counterparts and are not in a union), they must accept phone calls from students with homework questions until 9 pm each night.
The results are impressive: National KIPP data show students who start out in fifth grade one or more grade levels behind usually finish the year at or near grade level and rise to perform above grade level in all subjects by the end of sixth grade. At the KIPP schools in Houston and New York, which have the longest track record, more than 80 percent of those who completed eighth grade eventually went to college, compared with a community average of fewer than 20 percent, according to KIPP.
The incoming scores of students entering KIPP Journey Academy this fall were lower, on average, than at most KIPP schools, so the journey for some will be long. Of KIPP's first class of fifth graders, 10 transferred from other charter schools, according to KIPP Central Ohio executive director Jamal McCall. The rest came from Columbus public schools. Ninety-three percent of the students are African-American, and 91 percent of the class is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Mark Real, executive director of KidsOhio.org, a nonpartisan research group, is excited about KIPP. Real was part of a group of business and civic leaders, including Limited Brands founder and CEO Les Wexner, who lobbied to bring the school here. The group visited the Houston and New York schools before inviting KIPP to Columbus. The Columbus Partnership-a collection of the city's top business leaders- ultimately committed $500,000 toward KIPP's plan to open five schools in the city in stages.
"We were all impressed by the orderliness and the sense of purpose that we saw in these schools," says Real. "It's invigorating for Columbus to be a part of that national network."
KIPP Journey Academy opened this year with fifth-graders only, and it will add a grade each year until it houses fifth through eighth. Most KIPP schools are fifth- to eighth-grade middle schools, although there are some elementaries-and plans are underway to open high schools.
But while the students are only 10 and 11 years old, college is on the tip of everybody's tongue. The teachers wear college sweatshirts, the homerooms have names such as Skidmore and OU, and college pennants decorate the main gathering area. That suits parent Shelly Moss, a nurse, whose son Jordan attends KIPP. "His dad never went to college," she says. "For a long time he would say to Jordan, 'If you go to college.' I said you have to drop the 'if. ' It's 'when.' "
It may be too early to assess the impact of a school that opened in August 2008. But parents interviewed ranged from mildly to wildly enthusiastic. Shauna Hooks, who works as a computer systems trainer for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, sent her daughter to Christian and charter schools before transferring her to KIPP this fall when she saw her performance falling off.
"Devyn seemed to struggle. She wanted to learn, but she didn't seem to learn the way people were teaching her," says Hooks. "Her confidence was wavering and she was having a difficult time remembering basics. I tried to figure out what was going on, but I couldn't put my finger on what was the problem."
Hooks followed up on a recruitment letter and visited the school with Devyn. She liked the way the staff talked to her daughter, and they showed her a tape of an Oprah segment about KIPP. "She said, 'You know, Mom, maybe I can be smart like the kids on TV.' "
Devyn enrolled in KIPP and soon became more interested in school. "She came home singing these multiplication rhymes and she said, 'I love my math teacher!' She never liked math. Then she started talking about OU and graduating in 2016. You know, her self-confidence has blossomed. I feel like an infomercial-it's so crazy. I worried about my daughter. It was keeping me up at night. Now she's even excited about going to school on Saturdays."
Shelly Moss speaks with similar enthusiasm about Jordan's experience. Jordan was bored at his neighborhood school, she says, and getting into trouble. "When a child with ADD is bored," she says, "he needs to be challenged or he will find ways to challenge himself. And not always in a positive way."
KIPP, she says, provides him with both a more disciplined environment and the opportunity to tackle more challenging schoolwork. "He is absolutely flourishing there. He says, 'The work is harder, but, Mom, my grades are better.' " One recent day, says Moss, Jordan got sick at school, excusing himself from class three times to vomit in the bathroom, but never told anyone. "He didn't want to miss anything," she says. "And he was mad the next day when I kept him home."
The school's first year has not been smooth sailing, though. Despite an aggressive recruitment campaign, the enrollment of 71 students is still well shy of the targeted 90. This has reduced the school's public funding, which is paid on a per-pupil basis. Like other charter schools, KIPP receives $6,300 in public money for each student-significantly less, points out McCall, than the per-pupil spending at Columbus City Schools ($11,900). KIPP also had to scramble to pay for transportation for students who live more than two miles from the school, an expense McCall says he didn't originally expect. More than half the school's funding comes from corporate and foundation grants; the organization has received support from more than 30 businesses in Central Ohio, says McCall.
Then in November-just three months after its opening-the principal resigned. KIPP Central Ohio acted quickly, putting Hannah Powell, who had been chosen to be the principal of Columbus's second KIPP school in 2010, in her place.
Powell cuts a striking figure. Just 26 years old, blond and comfortable in smart suits and stiletto heels, she began her tenure by hauling her desk and all of her office furniture into a large central hallway so she could be in the middle of the action. "I feel better having the pulse of what's going on in the classroom," she says. Whether seated at her desk or moving about the building, she constantly talks with students. "I want every student every day to be acknowledged for being here," she says.
Positive behavior is rewarded at KIPP through bonuses on a "paycheck" students can use at the school store to purchase pencils and other goods or to earn the right to go on a class trip to Washington, D.C. Unacceptable behavior is punished with a deduction from the paycheck and, sometimes, separation from the group-but almost never removal from the class. Students may sit in the back of the room, or stand in the doorway, but to take them out of the learning environment would undercut KIPP's urgent goal of improving their academic performance.
In the end, it is that urgency-the sense students don't have a moment to waste-that sets KIPP apart. Powell may be young, says McCall (who is 31 himself), but she is "on fire."
During her first week on the job late last year, Powell seemed not only on fire, but also fully in control. She stood tapping a foot as students filed out of class and sat in straight lines on the floor, waiting for an assembly to begin. Each student opened a book and began to read quietly. "I like the way that you are assigning yourselves," said Powell. One boy had forgotten his book. "What do you need to do?" she said. "Assign yourself." The boy went back to the classroom to fetch his book.
When all 71 of the students were assembled, Powell started to chant. "I've got a question: Who are you?" She leaped on a desk, spike heels and all. "KIPP Journey Academy, I can't hear you!" The chanting grew louder: "You gotta read, baby, read. You gotta read, baby, read. Knowledge is power and power is knowledge. I want it!"
Suzanne Goldsmith-Hirsch is a freelance writer.