At the Top of the Class: KIPP Programs Could Revolutionize Charter Schools in Poor Districts-If They Can Just Keep Their Grades Up

Article excerpt

Byline: Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz

Adalberto Garza's 13-year- old son, Adalberto Jr., was tagged a problem learner in his Houston elementary school. He's dyslexic and, because his first language is Spanish, English-speaking teachers often had difficulty understanding him. "His accent and his way of talking made him seem as if he had a mental handicap," his father says. But after Adalberto Jr. enrolled at KIPP Academy Houston, his grades shot up. At KIPP, Garza says, the teachers "are truly interested in our children."

Garza is not the only one who's impressed. Many education reformers think the Houston middle school and 14 other KIPP schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia may have found a better way to educate disadvantaged students. And KIPP has also become a national model for more widespread reform of charter-school programs. KIPP began in the mid-1990s, when Michael Feinberg and David Levin, two alums of Teach for America (which sends recent college graduates into urban schools), grew frustrated by their lack of progress teaching fifth graders in the Houston Independent School District. They persuaded the then Superintendent Rod Paige (now the secretary of Education) to let them try a new concept--demanding academics, much longer days and stricter discipline. Feinberg and Levin called their class the Knowledge Is Power Program, and their results were striking: 98 percent of their students passed the state's standardized tests compared with just 50 percent the year before. Feinberg went on to open the Houston school, and Levin started a second KIPP school in the Bronx. At both, students attend class 10 hours a day plus alternate Saturdays as well as summers. Teachers carry cell phones so they can be reached 24/7 if students need help (they get a stipend for the extra hours). And students sign a pledge to abide by the rules.

Although middle schools are notoriously difficult to run, KIPP students were soon outscoring their peers in other schools and winning national attention, including an appearance at the 2000 GOP convention. Results like these attracted more districts and foundation money, including $25 million in the past few years from the Pisces Foundation (started by the founders of the Gap chain) to help open more KIPP schools. …