No shortcuts. No excuses.

By Editorial

There are about 2,900 third-graders attending classes in St. Louis Public Schools, 8- and 9-year-olds blissfully unaware that they could be members of the high school graduating class of 2017.

At current rates, at least a thousand of these kids will never get to the 12th grade, and fewer than 1,600 of them will graduate. Maybe one in four of them will go on to college or junior college. Many others will get diplomas that aren’t worth the fake parchment they’re printed on.

These tragic casualty rates have held more or less steady for many years, through many changes in school boards and mayors, through all sorts of social and educational reforms.

To our profound shame, this city, this region and this state – and indeed, this country, for this problem is not limited to St. Louis – have accepted educational casualty rates of 40 percent or more. In a military operation, a 40-percent casualty rate would be a disaster. In urban public education, it’s the norm.

Now comes the Knowledge Is Power Program, a well-respected national charter school network that proposes to make a small dent in that rate here.

In the fall of 2009, KIPP proposes to take 90 of today’s third-graders (who’ll be fifth-graders by then) and divert them into a KIPP school.

They’ll be chosen by lottery after KIPP’s principal and teachers (who have yet to be hired) knock on doors and stand outside supermarkets recruiting them. They and their parents will have to sign contracts to abide by strict rules of performance and discipline, including 9 1/2-hour school days, classes every other Saturday, homework every night and active parental involvement.

They’ll do a lot of serious reading, writing and arithmetic. They’ll do a lot of rapping, rhythm-and-rhyme rote recitations of multiplication tables and math facts. They’ll get enrichment in art and music. They’ll wear uniforms and say “Yes ma’am and “No, ma’am.”

And they will succeed. “We say, ‘All students will learn,'” said Steve Mancini, KIPP’s public affairs director. “Not ‘All students can learn.’ ‘All students will learn.'”

It’s not an idle boast or the kind of fingers-crossed hope that characterizes most of the city’s current 15 charter schools. Since its creation in Houston in 1994, KIPP has expanded to 57 schools in 17 states, serving mainly low-income students in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. Eighty percent of KIPP’s eighth-graders end up going to college.

The program is so successful that cities compete for KIPP schools. St. Louis got the only new “franchise” this year, which is a significant distinction. The idea is to add one new grade per year until there is a cluster of five schools, including a high school, within 10 years.

As a charter school, KIPP schools are funded with a per-pupil share of public school funds, supplemented by private foundation money. They hire super-motivated principals and give them absolute autonomy in hiring ultra-motivated teachers. They have little patience with what Dave Levin, one of KIPP’s founders, calls the “cartels” of public education: teachers’ unions and university schools of education.

Nevertheless, Washington University has signed on as the sponsor of KIPP’s St. Louis school, one of the few elite American universities to get involved with a charter school. And because of Washington University’s influence, the program has the enthusiastic support of the area’s business community.

But in their understandable enthusiasm for dealing with cartel-free public education, civic leaders must still focus on the larger challenge of the 2,810 third graders who won’t be getting into the KIPP school in 2009. Charter schools already receive $56 million of the St. Louis Public School’s operating budget, and casualty rates continue to mount.

KIPP’s motto is “No shortcuts. No excuses.” Their welcomed presence should inspire all public education here.

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