48 of 48

ByBob Herbert

The teenager’s voice on the other end of the phone on Thursday was more than exuberant. It was ecstatic.

“I’m going to college!” she said, virtually singing. “I’m going to college!”

I met Shanequa High some years ago when she was a sixth-grader at a middle school that was still in the embryonic stage (there were only two grades) in rural Gaston, N.C. The Gaston College Preparatory School was part of the KIPP network of charter schools, and the early word was that it was showing great promise.

Gaston was hardly a stereotypical stop for someone in search of academic excellence. The school’s new, low-rise building was built on land that had previously been a peanut and soybean farm. I remember driving past farm-equipment outlets and a cotton field on my way from the airport to the school.

Most of the students were black, and many were from low-income families. Most of the other schools in the region were struggling. When I spoke to Shanequa during that visit, one of the first things she told me was, “We don’t have any fighting here or any of that picking-on-people stuff.”

The original plan was that Gaston Prep would grow naturally into a school that encompassed grades 5 through 8, which is the normal KIPP model. (KIPP is short for the Knowledge Is Power Program, an effort that started in Houston and has become one of the most academically sound public school programs in the nation.) The goal was to lift the students out of the academic doldrums that handicapped the life chances of so many of their peers and get them onto a solid college track.

I remember being struck by how quiet the school was. It was a disciplined environment, and the schoolwork was approached with the utmost seriousness. I wrote: “The school lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., which allows time for additional classroom work and extracurricular activities. After that, there are two hours of homework. The kids also attend classes every other Saturday. And there are three weeks of summer school.”

The school flourished. The youngsters worked so hard and did so well, so quickly, that the founders of the school felt they needed to create an academically rigorous high school if the hopes raised by the middle school were to be fully realized.

One of the founders, Tammi Sutton, noted that other places with KIPP middle schools — Houston and New York, for example — had many fine high schools that the KIPP middle school graduates could attend. That was not the case in Gaston and its environs.

So Ms. Sutton and Caleb Dolan, who had started Gaston Prep, took on the enormous task (with invaluable assistance from the Gates Foundation) of creating a high school from scratch. And not just a high school, but a first-rate, academically rigorous, full-service high school, complete with the extracurricular activities that are always an important component of the KIPP experience.

Nothing about it was easy. High-quality teachers from around the country and abroad had to be persuaded to set up shop in Gaston. An athletic program had to be established. Most important, the kids had to maintain their commitment to a high level of academic achievement.

How has it worked out? Shanequa is in the first graduating class of the new high school. Of the 48 seniors, 48 will be going on to college.

The pride in Ms. Sutton’s voice was as palpable as the joy in Shanequa’s. “All of our graduating seniors have been accepted into at least two colleges,” she said. “One hundred percent of them will be attending college in the fall.”

Most of the kids, including Shanequa, will be the first in their families ever to go to college.

What I thought was interesting was that neither Ms. Sutton nor Shanequa downplayed the difficulties of their respective efforts. The idea that there is any shortcut to real success — in school, in business, in government, in life, anywhere at all — is silly, a figment of the imaginations of those who have never stopped sitting on the sidelines.

Starting the high school was a “monstrous” undertaking, Ms. Sutton said.

And getting through it as a student was no cakewalk. “It has been very difficult,” Shanequa told me. “I had my ups and downs. There were some bad days, but I fought through them. My teachers were always pushing me: ‘Shanequa, you can do it. Don’t give up.’”

She then described the payoff: “When the acceptance letters started coming in the mail, I was like, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ I wish I could do it all over again just to get the letters in the mail that said, ‘Shanequa, congratulations, you have been accepted at this university.’”