A dozen years later, KIPP's first class graduates

ByMartha Woodall

Read the full article at PhiladelphiaInquirer.com >

One day in the summer before fifth grade, Courtney Scott was jumping rope with a friend outside her family’s West Philadelphia rowhouse when her parents called her inside to meet a stranger.

The visit was not the only thing about KIPP Philadelphia Charter School that would be different. To ensure students were ready for college, principal Marc Mannella told the family, classes would run from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Enrichment programs would take up Saturdays, and they’d meet for three weeks before school even started that fall.

“I was not excited, to say the least,” Scott, 22, recalled recently. She agreed to try KIPP for a year.

But what she began as a trial in 2003 turned into a 12-year transformation that culminated two weeks ago when Scott received her diploma from Haverford College.

Susan Larson, who taught English to Scott in fifth grade, then kept in touch while she was away at boarding school in Delaware and at Haverford, was in the audience to applaud.

“When I look back over my experience, I don’t think I would be where I am today without KIPP opening doors for me,” said Scott, who majored in psychology.

“It’s been rewarding and amazing to watch 10-year-olds turn into 22-year-olds who are going out to conquer the world,” said Larson, KIPP’s director of alumni support.

KIPP Philadelphia has grown from a single middle school to a cluster with an elementary school, two middle schools, and a high school in North and West Philadelphia, and it’s celebrating two milestones:

The students from that founding fifth-grade class are graduating college. In addition, KIPP will announce this week that Temple University has become a KIPP College Partner. As a partner, Temple will seek to recruit eight to 10 qualified KIPP students a year and help them while they are on campus.

The partnership is part of an effort to make sure that KIPP charter grads – predominantly low-income students who are the first in their families to go to college – not only enroll in college but also stay and earn degrees.

“We’re trying as many things as we can to increase the odds” that students will succeed, Mannella said. “We’re trying to home in on colleges and universities that have a minority-completion rate that is above what you would expect for their selectivity.”

Sarah Gomez, who manages the city’s KIPP Through College program, said Temple was a natural.

“It’s right here in the city,” Gomez said. “And it’s one of the good places we want our kids to attend.”

For the last two years, KIPP has paid a Temple student and KIPP alum to act as a KIPP ambassador to plan programs and keep tabs on alums on campus.

William N. Black, Temple’s senior vice provost, said the incoming Class of 2019 will include at least five KIPP grads.

“One of the reasons why I was particularly interested in this, is Temple’s mission of providing access,” he said. “Being a Philadelphia public university, we are very interested in identifying and encouraging talented students. KIPP is a really good opportunity for us to do that.”

Temple joins more than 70 colleges and universities that have partnered with KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program. The University of Pennsylvania joined three years ago.

The KIPP national organization developed the partnership approach to boost graduation rates.

Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the national organization, said the partnerships are designed to demystify the campus experience for first-generation students.

Four years ago, when the national organization embarked on a campaign to increase college graduation, statistics showed that 31 percent of all 25- to 29-year-olds had degrees, while the rate for low-income young adults was only 9 percent.

At that time, KIPP reported that 34 percent of its students had earned college degrees 10 years after they completed eighth grade. By 2014, the rate had improved to 44 percent.

In Philadelphia, 18 percent of the 34 students who were KIPP grads in 2007 earned college degrees in May; half are still in school.

In two years, KIPP Philadelphia expects that 40 percent of its 2007 graduates will have degrees.

“We had an unfailing belief in our kids, and we knew that if we taught our students in a high-quality way they would learn and be able to go to college,” said Mannella, KIPP Philadelphia’s founding CEO. “Twelve years later to be watching this happen is pretty incredible.”

As director of alumni support, Larson has maintained close ties with her former students. She’s even Facebook friends with some who left KIPP because their family circumstances changed or who found the program too demanding.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Larson said. “We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”

The first six who earned diplomas graduated from colleges that included Temple, Widener, and Lincoln. A KIPP staffer attended each ceremony.

Larson made the trip to see Maya Washington-Zeigler, 22, graduate from Denison University, a liberal arts school in Granville, Ohio.

Washington-Zeigler of West Oak Lane said she still recalls that first day of fifth grade, when Mannella told students the importance of direct eye contact and a firm handshake.

“It seems like it was yesterday,” she said.

KIPP did not have a high school back then, so Larson and others helped students find spots for ninth grade that would keep them on track for college.

With financial assistance from KIPP, Washington-Zeigler attended the Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, a private Catholic girls’ school in Bryn Mawr.

The cultural shift was initially jarring.

“My first year in high school, I went to KIPP almost every day after school,” Washington-Zeigler recalled. “I talked to them all the time.”

She will head to Boston in August to work in classrooms in a two-year residency program with Match, a charter program that, she said, is similar to KIPP.

At the same time, Washington-Zeigler will study for a master’s degree in effective teaching from a graduate program affiliated with Match.

“Being at KIPP, you get this idea in your head that all teachers are like that and all schools are like that, and they aren’t,” she said. “KIPP is the reason I decided to go into education.”