Chronicling the KIPP way

New book explores success of national charter school network

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Editor's note: This story ran in the latest issue of Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal's sibling newspaper on Chicago's West Side. We believe that, amid continuous concern about the achievement gap, publishing this story for Oak Park and River Forest readers is relevant.

Here's one educational book readers aren't likely to find boring.

Work Hard, Be Nice is the story of the national charter school network known as KIPP: Knowledge Is Power Program. The author, New York Times reporter Jay Mathews, tells how founders Mike Feinberg, who grew up in Oak Park, and Dave Levin started an inspiring nationwide network of 60 charter schools.

They opened their first school in 1994 in Houston; a year later, they opened a school in New York City. Because of their success, Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The Gap clothing stores, approached Feinberg and Levin, offering to help create more schools across the country. The Fishers set up the KIPP Foundation, which trains school leaders and monitors the schools.

Mathews recently visited KIPP Ascend, the charter school at 715 S. Kildare in Austin, where Oak Parker Jim O'Connor is the school leader. (In KIPP schools, administrators aren't called principals.) KIPP Ascend - like other schools in the network, most of which are fifth through eighth grade - ranks high on standardized test scores. It also graduates students to high schools, who from there go on to college. Tracking students is a KIPP signature.

Mathews starting working on the book in 2003, the same year that KIPP Ascend opened. He's now on a promotional tour for the book, which has made the New York Times' bestseller list. Austin Weekly News caught up with Mathews after he toured KIPP Ascend.

What made you want to write about KIPP's founders?

I've been writing about schools for 27 years. It started when I stumbled across a high school in Los Angeles - Garfield High, which was exploding with Advanced Placement courses in a school where there shouldn't have been any. It was 85 percent low-income. All the parents were sixth-grade dropouts; the kind of place most Americans believe kids just can't learn at an AP level.

I wrote a book about them; that they are the great secret of American society. That the kids in the inner city were just as smart as the kids in the suburbs. But nobody in the inner city schools had given them the time and encouragement they needed to learn. That is all they needed.

I became a full-time education reporter for The Washington Post and stumbled across the first KIPP school in D.C., which was doing the same thing that school in L.A. was doing. They understood that kids from the poorest part of D.C. were just as smart as the kids in the suburbs; all they needed was extra time and encouragement to learn. And they were giving them the KIPP system - longer school days and great teaching. They told me about these two teacher founders, Mike and Dave.

Why do you think KIPP's approach to education isn't used as a model for all public schools?

Most Americans, and a lot of teachers, don't believe that kids from certain backgrounds can learn at that level. The first line in the book explains that is our problem, and the more KIPP schools we have showing the results that these kids are just as smart as suburban kids, the more people will adopt this approach.

What future do you see for KIPP schools?

Limitless. I think there are two things happening. KIPP schools are going to change regular schools by growing in all these communities. And then we got people who think like KIPP teachers who are taking over school districts. So we have Michelle Reed in D.C., who is essentially KIPP-terizing the whole school district. We got the KIPP leader that started a KIPP school in Tulsa. He has now taken a job as a deputy superintendent in Tulsa. He is going to take over that district at some time. Eventually, from top to bottom, the philosophy of KIPP - more time and encouragement for learning - is going to take over.

Are there children who cannot be taught because of their environment?

Absolutely not; it's ridiculous. It is beyond any kind of understanding of the real world to think that happens. Some children won't become Nobel Prize winners, but every human being has a God-given talent to be a much better learner if they really work at it. We got all kinds of stories of kids with even mental handicaps who have gotten better by having great teachers. It's all about great teaching.

Schools in Chicago urban communities have many problems. Do you think Chicago would benefit if there were more KIPP schools?

Absolutely. Chicago's got a lot of problems. They try to do it from the top down and often that hasn't worked. They really need to convince people that what they have to do is unleash the power of great teachers. Give great teachers a chance to run their own shows, as KIPP schools do, and do things that make sense to them.

The only limit being if they are not showing a gain in achievement, then they've got to do something different. That is the way to break it up, and it has to be, I think, not so much top down; not so much what the city is doing or what the school district is doing, but what the teachers are doing.

You have to free up the great teachers.

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