KIPP celebrates 10 years of changing lives in Austin

ByMartha DeGrasse

Marisela Bueno still remembers the summer night in 2005 when the phone rang while her family was eating dinner. The little girl saw her mother answer the call and quickly pass the phone to her father because the caller was speaking in English. She heard her father speak earnestly into the phone, but she did not realize the call was about her. Then her father hung up and told her she would be going to a new school.

“I had no idea what a significant moment in my life that would be,” says Marisela. “I had never heard of KIPP.”

KIPP stands for the Knowledge is power Program, a national charter school that recently cut the ribbon on its seventh Austin campus at the intersection of Ben White and I-35. During the ten years since Jill Kolasinski founded Austin’s first KIPP school, the program has changed hundreds of lives by providing a world-classs education to low-income Austinites, many of whom come to the school with limited English skills.

“My advisor, Mrs. Wall, helped me improve my English,” says Marisela, now a KIPP senior applying to colleges. “She spent extra time with me and my other classmates who were struggling to learn English. I saw how hard Mrs. Wall was working to help us. I could tell she believed in us. She believed in me. I started to believe in myself.”

KIPP Austin students have matriculated at the University of Texas, as well as many colleges around the country, including Sewanee, Syracuse, and Pomona College. The focus on college starts in elementary school, where KIPP students decorate their classrooms with college pennants and sing songs about going to college in both English and Spanish.

But of course it takes much more than enthusiasm to get into college. KIPP students stay at school until 5 p.m. and attend school on Saturdays. Most nights, they bring home two or three hours of homework.

Many of the West Austinites who have helped KIPP Austin secure land and fundraising say they stand in awe of the commitment these students make. “When I was that age, if someone had asked me to go to school on Saturdays, I don’t think I would have been signing up for that,” says KIPP founding board member Kin Gill. “So I think a lot of credit goes to these students.”

“We tell our students they don’t get second chances,” says KIPP Director of Development and External Affairs Evvie Nazro. “When I was their age, I could have messed up two or three times, and I would have still been OK. These kids don’t have that opportunity.”

But with the pressure comes enormous support and encouragement for the young people lucky enough to be accepted through KIPP’s lottery (only one out of three applicants gets in). Teachers share their mobile phone numbers with students so that they can help them during the evening with homework questions. And other nonprofit groups like Explore Austin partner with KIPP to offer students opportunities to bond and grow with mentors outside the classroom.