Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Success for kids accustomed to failure

You can hear the pace of the learning going on at the KIPP Academy, or the Knowledge is Power Program, long before you see it.

Thump. Thump. CLAP!

About these ads

Thump. Thump. CLAP!

You gotta read baby read!

You gotta read baby read!

The more you read,

The more you know.

Knowledge is power,

Power is money,

About these ads

And I want it.

There is nothing subtle about the rap-rhythm chants that pop up at about any point in a KIPP school day. And nothing trivial about the big achievement gains that this public charter school is producing with at-risk Hispanic and black children in Houston.

Only about one-third of kids in the Class of 2004 could pass fourth-grade state tests in reading and math when they enrolled.

After a year, 93 percent were passing math and 92 percent passed reading, despite the fact that many had parents who don't speak English. By sixth grade, pass rates were at or near 100 percent. This year's graduating class started eighth grade solving college-level math problems, according to a national survey.

The style at KIPP is anything but traditional. It's fast-paced, funny, and edgy. But they've based their success on attention to old-fashioned basics: reading, writing, and reasoning -and extensive time for instruction.

"We got together a lot of people not used to failure and plopped them down in places where people were not used to success," says director Michael Feinberg.

He and co-founder David Levin came to Texas as two-year volunteers for Teach for America, a national program that recruits top college graduates to teach in poor schools.

What prompted them to stay on and start a school in 1995 was the experience of watching kids they had taught 'head off to middle school with a head of steam,' then lose their edge, he says.

"Some came back and asked me to give them homework, because 'they won't let us take books home.' I saw the light in their eyes fade. They started doing drugs, getting pregnant; then the light went out," he says.

KIPP started out as a fifth-grade program - with 50 kids in a room - at the Houston Independent School District. The next year, the program expanded into HISD office kitchenettes and onto the stage. They moved five times in four years, and wound up in a cluster of trailers down the road from a Houston highway. KIPP is now a state charter school for fifth- to eighth-graders that operates independently of the district.

KIPP offers kids a high-level curriculum with instruction that is often delivered with as many laughs as a late-night TV monologue. Questions fired off to a fifth-grade class: "What's the capital of Utah?" "What's a salt lake?" "What's evaporation?" "Can you count by sevens?" (Yes!) "Do it!" (7, 14, 21, 28, 35... ) Seventh-graders study algebra and read high-school novels. The biggest smiles come when the class gets to shout in unison: "Boring!"

But the heart of the program is a commitment to more time for learning. Students attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, four hours on Saturdays, and a month every summer. That's about 67 percent more time in class than in a typical Houston public school.

"We're all running a race. They're behind. You need to run faster to catch up. And we need to break a cycle of despair and failure," Feinberg explains. "Middle school is where poor kids can make up a lot of lost ground, because most schools lower expectations for students in the seventh and eighth grades. This is where we can catch up to the top public and private schools."

With the extra time, KIPP doesn't need to commit to any one reading method. Fifth-graders who come in with a weak grasp of English learn phonics and also read lots of literature. Forty-five minutes a day is set aside for reading novels. In that period, there are no tests, drills, or grades; just reading and talking about books with teachers who clearly love them.

"We're looking for people who are very knowledgeable, who don't have to rely on the teacher's edition. They need to connect with kids, to translate information into a way kids will get. And they need to make an extra effort," says Mr. Feinberg.

At KIPP, that extra effort means regular home visits and carrying a cell phone - standard issue for teachers here. Students are required to phone teachers at home if they have any problems with their homework. No excuses.

"When teachers get together for a night out in a restaurant, the cell phones never stop ringing," quips Laurie Bieber, director of development at KIPP. "What we do, anyone can do. It's the time and the dedicated staff that make a difference."

Most teachers have liberal-arts degrees and little formal training in education methods. More than a third are Teach for America veterans. On paper, KIPP teachers look undercredentialed and teaching out of field, but you'd never know it to watch them.

A clear culture is at work that everyone learns on site. Feinberg teaches a class on thinking skills that includes KIPP raps along with problem-solving, SAT analogies, and novels. This first-year course "ties together the entire curriculum," he says.

Teachers are encouraged to visit master teachers in other states as well as to pursue professional development. Feinberg credits Houston teacher and mentor Harriet Ball with the distinctive approach at KIPP (see story, below).

She also developed the approach to discipline and classroom management used at KIPP. Instead of sending kids out of class or on suspension, they're sent "to the porch." Kids sent there can't talk to classmates during the day. They're also required to write a letter to each classmate to explain how they are going to improve.

One student is close to porch duty. Feinberg takes her aside. "Get back on the ball. You're digging a deeper hole for yourself." (She didn't complete an assignment and misbehaved on the bus.) "Those five minutes the teacher had to talk to you about not doing your homework is taking time from class."

Parents are part of the regime. Students, teachers, and parents sign a "commitment to excellence." Parents commit to trying to read with kids at night, to checking homework, and to letting kids call teachers about work. The form concludes: "We, not the school, are responsible for the behavior and actions of our child. Failure to adhere to these commitments can cause my child to lose various KIPP privileges, spend time on the 'porch,' and can lead to my child returning to his/her home school."

*Send e-mail to

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.