The C in linguistics proved to Rebecca Mercado that college was going to be different. "It was the first time I had ever received a grade lower than a B, and it was upsetting," admits Mercado, a biochemistry and cell biology major at the University of California, San Diego. The first in her family to attend a four-year college, Mercado was a strong student dating all the way back to her days in middle school at San Diego's KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy. Perhaps as a result, she was "a little more cocky than I should have been" when arriving on campus for freshman year. Like many freshmen, Mercado experienced the distraction of being on her own for the first time, which took a toll on her grades. Holding down a job while taking more classes than she could handle didn't help. "It all came crashing down on top of me," Mercado says. Freshman year was "a big dose of reality," she says.
Here's another one: statistically speaking, Mercado might have been voted "Least Likely to Succeed" at birth. Low-income black and Hispanic students are by far the least likely U.S. students to graduate from high school and attend a four-year college. Those who are accepted to college are least likely to stick around and earn a degree. For each one who earns a bachelor's degree, 11 fall short somewhere along the line, giving students like Mercado a mere 8 percent chance of graduating from college.
Reenergized after a summer internship with the KIPP Foundation in Chicago, she is back on campus for the fall semester of 2012. She credits the habits of mind and encouragement she received in middle school, and the contacts she maintains five years later with KIPP teachers and administrators, for propelling her forward. "This year I'm coming in with a clear head. I'm more focused on my classes and what I want to accomplish. I'm going to do better," she says. Her delivery communicates not hope or aspiration but conviction. "Nothing is going to keep me from graduating," she insists, adding for emphasis, "nothing."
Mercado's story--both her struggle and her determination--will be repeated over the next several years on college campuses across the U.S. At one level, she's just one more kid trying to pass biology, graduate, and make something of herself. But as the product of a KIPP school, Mercado is at the vanguard of a rapidly growing class of students whose success or failure could make or break the reputation of a closely watched group of charter schools and the sometimes-controversial, muscular brand of education they have pioneered. In 2015, more than 10,000 students from KIPP and other major charter-school highfliers will be on college campuses across the United States.
The Coming KIPP Bubble
You can't play the ingenue forever. For much of its brief history, there has been something of a halo over the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Founded in Houston in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, a pair of Teach For America corps members, KIPP now has more than 100 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C. It is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids. It's this last feature that led KIPP and the others to be branded "No Excuses" schools, a label not universally embraced within the category. …