KIPP schools raise the bar

ByRehema Ellis

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Imagine this:  You’re an eighth grader doing your math homework one night and need help. So, you dial your math teacher’s cell phone number and bingo. You get all the help you need. Pretty farfetched, right?

I mean, what kid calls their teacher at home?  Well, it happens if you’re a student in the KIPP public charter school program, like Gabriel Gomez.  He lives in the Bronx and travels an hour and 15 minutes every day, riding a bus and two trains to get to school in Harlem by 7:00am. He’s there until 5pm.

Connecting to teachers during after school hours is foreign to most students whether you’re at an inner-city school like Gabriel or in private school.  Gabriel admits it took some time getting used to the idea.

“I felt very uncomfortable calling my teachers…but when I did, I understood the homework and got what I needed to know for that day,” he said.

KIPP teachers and administrators have figured out that learning AND teaching doesn’t happen in a confined space and time or in a straight line.  They say that’s why they’ve given out their cell phone numbers and made themselves accessible to students and parents 24/7.

I wonder what kind of student I would have been if I had that kind of access?

What I saw when I visited the Harlem school in preparation for our story was nothing short of devotion. Devotion from everyone: teachers, students, parents, the principal, secretaries, cafeteria and maintenance staff.  They all want these kids to succeed and they’re putting in the time and hard work that it takes to make that possible. And the whole atmosphere in the school supports that.
KIPP is a clean, comfortable place with messages everywhere about being successful. And it is possible. KIPP test scores prove it. David Levin,  co-founder of the KIPP network of schools said when he came up with the idea 15 years ago in Houston people thought he was crazy. 

“There was tons of resistance,” he said. “People did not think we could find students who would go to school from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m.  We went door-to-door explaining what we were doing. We got 45 kids who were excited.”

What they were doing was offering families a chance to turn school failure into success with very hard work. Today, there are 20,000 KIPP students nationwide and long waiting lists of others who want to participate. That says, contrary to stereotyped notions, inner-city kids are just like kids everywhere and they really do want to learn.

You could  think about all the failure that exists in American schools and get discouraged. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote recently, “American kids drop out of high school at an average of one every 26 seconds.”

And studies show even the best students in the best schools in the United States score below students in other major countries on math, science and reading exams.

But what I saw at KIPP gives me reason to still be hopeful. The KIPP students are constantly pushed to do better and they’re responding in positive ways.


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