While the nation still struggles to fulfill the promise of Brown , these schools are proving that high achievement can also be colorblind
Martin Robinson, 14, didn't have much use for elementary school. He interrupted teachers, talked in class, and ended up having to repeat the fourth grade. In the evenings, battles raged over the homework he never wanted to do. For role models, kids in his South Bronx neighborhood looked not to their teachers but to the men selling drugs out on the streets, young guys with cool clothes and easy cash. "If it weren't for KIPP," he says today, "I'd be right out there with them."
He's talking about the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of public middle schools that is fast becoming a national model for educating poor minority kids. KIPP was founded 10 years ago in Houston by two young Teach for America recruits, David Levin and Michael Feinberg, to create rigorous college preparatory schools for disadvantaged middle schoolers. The program they envisioned encompassed long school hours, substantial homework, and strict discipline. Both kids and parents would be required to sign contracts pledging to meet the school's attendance and homework expectations. But the real key would be dynamic teachers who had not only a command of the curriculum but also the ability to connect with children. "The quality of teachers is the heart and soul of what we do," says Levin.
Today, there are 31 KIPP schools (almost all charter schools) located in 13 states and the nation's capital. Most KIPP students are poor and enter with reading and math skills well below grade level. Yet the schools have consistently taken disadvantaged children and dramatically boosted their academic achievement. At the KIPP school in Gaston, N.C., 47 percent of entering fifth graders were reading below grade level in 2001. By the end of the following school year, the percentage had dropped to 7 percent. KIPP Academy New York, founded in 1995, has become the highest-performing public middle school in the Bronx in math, reading, and attendance. Virtually all KIPP graduates go on to top public and private high schools; over 80 percent of KIPP alumni currently in their senior year are expected to go to college.
Martin Robinson was lucky enough to find his way into KIPP Academy New York after his mother heard about it from a neighbor. (Children are admitted on a first-come-first-served basis and, if necessary, by lottery.) Located on the fourth floor of Intermediate School 151 in a bleak section of the South Bronx, it seems like a cross between a motivational workshop and a military corps. The walls are plastered with brightly colored signs: "Work Hard!" "Be Nice!" "There Are No Shortcuts!!!" Running or yelling is forbidden; students walk in straight, quiet lines. Though classes average more than 30 students, they are so silent you could hear an eraser drop. If a child speaks without being called on, the teacher stops in midsentence. If a child's attention strays, the teacher warns: "I'm missing one person's eyes."
Boot camp. Creating this environment doesn't happen all at once. Entering fifth graders spend their first week in a process called "KIPPnotizing." Among other things, they learn to SLANT (sit up straight, listen, ask and answer questions, nod your head, and track the speaker). Some critics question the regimented approach, but Brookings Institution education scholar Tom Loveless, a former classroom teacher, argues that it is vital. "You have to have basic order before you can do anything educationally sound," he says.