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Starting from scratch

A young principal spends her summer pounding the pavement in search of students to fill her new school.

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"I will arrive at KIPP He-ar-et-wood Ac-a-de-mee-a every day by 7:25 a.m. Monday- Friday." Fourth-grader Delia Bustamante struggles to read the student's "commitment to excellence" for the charter middle school she'll start later this month.

"We have a saying: If you're five minutes early, you're already late," says Sehba Zhumkhawala, founder, principal, and study-skills teacher for brand-new KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose's low-income Alum Rock district.

Delia's parents agree to get her to school by 7:20 a.m. Time is precious at KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) and the whole idea is to give students as much time in school as possible. The school day at KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a half day on alternate Saturdays.

It may also extend late into the evenings. Delia can call her teachers till 10 every night, including on weekends and vacation days. "I'll also give you my cellphone number," Ms. Zhumkhawala says. "You can call me 24/7. You can call me at 3 a.m."

Zhumkhawala is known in Alum Rock as "The Woman Who Asks Questions." To recruit students for her school, she walks the streets asking, "Do you know any fourth-graders?" That's how she met Delia.

Public school principals generally don't spend their summers recruiting students for their schools. Most often they're appointed to schools where decisions about location and student enrollment have already been made and often even the hiring and firing of faculty is beyond their purview.

But with the birth of the charter-school movement has come a new kind of administrator with a new set of duties and concerns. Educated at top US schools, Zhumkhawala, at 28, is idealistic, ambitious, and eager to shake up the system. Before she can run her new school, however, she has had to create it from scratch - sell the community on the idea, raise money to supplement state funding, find a site, hire teachers, and, now, hardest of all, persuade parents to trust her with their children.

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