Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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KIPP Schools

Published By: The Independent - 05 May 2007

The fifth graders in a New Jersey middle school sit up straight and pay attention. They know their multiplication tables backwards. They can do long division faster than you can blink. They even know a little about themselves. “The more focused you are, the more you learn,” says one.

Why should we, in the UK, care? Because these are ghetto kids from the bottom of the social pile, whose lives have been given an astonishing U-turn by a new approach to schooling that could soon be making its mark on this side of the Atlantic.

This approach refuses to accept poverty as an excuse for failure, and says that with hard work and dedication every student can achieve.

There are now 52 schools under the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) across the USA. They offer free education and, as charter schools, run on a mixture of public and private funding. Alan Johnson, the education minister, visited one in Washington DC last autumn and was so blown away by what he saw there that he has invited KIPP to come over here to discuss whether it can offer useful pointers on how our new trust schools might work.

Here, in a former Catholic school, on a snowy street in a drug-blighted Newark neighbourhood, it is easy to see why.

TEAM Academy, like most KIPP schools, is a small middle school, taking 360 pupils from 10 to 14. These are poor kids, from difficult backgrounds, who are two years behind in maths and three years behind in reading when they come into the school, and who have no expectations of doing anything with their lives. But by the end of just one year they have caught up academically, and are talking of going to college.

In fact, the school’s results are astonishing. In the four years that the ‘Class of 2010’ (each class is labelled according to the year students will go to college) was at TEAM Academy, students went from an average score in nationally-normed tests of 31 to 91 in math, and from 21 to 73 in reading. TEAM students do better than other Newark students in every subject, in every grade. And they do it on just under half the funding that other pupils in the city get – about £4,500 per pupil a year, as opposed to £8,500.

Two years ago, a national study found that KIPP schools made “large and significant” gains beyond what is average for urban public schools.

Ryan Hill, the 30-year-old executive director of KIPP in Newark, says such results are a wake-up call for everyone. “It isn’t just the city schools that are doing so badly. Many suburban schools are just coasting, too.”

TEAM students also conduct themselves impeccably. Their dress is modest and smart. In the hallways they line up quietly. And in the lunchroom they fall instantly silent when a signal is given.

They work from 7.30am to 5pm, then go home to two hours’ homework a night. But the school is no boot camp. Relationships between teachers and pupils are relaxed, lessons are lively, and in an area where student mobility is 30 per cent, TEAM Academy has a turnover of just 5 per cent, and waiting lists for every grade.

“When I first came here I thought I would hate it,,” says Zahriyah Wilson, 10. “But it’s real fun. Every day I’m excited to get up and come to school. And I love my teachers. They have taught me so much about myself. I’ve found out I’m capable of so much more than I thought I was. I’m very much smarter than I thought I was.”

Yet the school has only the most basic facilities and does not select students but awards places by lottery. So how does it do it?

Key to its success is a potent mix of people and attitudes.

Like other KIPP schools, TEAM Academy is staffed by young, enthusiastic teachers, many of whom have been through the Teach For America programme, which places bright graduates into challenging schools for a couple of years. These teachers are skilled, they want to make a difference, and are prepared to go many extra miles to do so.

The school also stresses the importance of attitudes. “Our expectations are way different from what students have been used it,” says Hill. “They have to work hard, be nice, sit up straight in lessons, do two hours of homework, go to college, and do some good in the world. That’s their goal. To be better people, not just to do well in school. But kids like it. They want structure. They don’t like being confused about how they should act.”

The first week in school sets the culture. With games and talks, students are taught about hard work, self-respect, and why the school has the rules that it does. “Work hard. Be nice.” is the slogan, and school sweatshirts -- which have to be earned -- are emblazoned with “No Excuses.”

But students are also encouraged to think for themselves. ”We want them to challenge the teachers. The best learners are not complacent sheep,” says Hill. Discipline is maintained by weekly ‘paychecks’ of marks, and by detentions – students are not excluded from lessons, but have to wear a yellow shirt. But mainly it comes inside. “I used curse and disrespect my teachers,” says 10-year-old Shawn Harris, “but I don’t want to be like that no more.”

At first, students might just parrot what they’ve been told, but attitudes are constantly reinforced. “And the niceness and goodness have usually taken hold by sixth grade,” says Hill. “They are pretty good by then.”

Students spend a lot of “time on task”, in lessons which work them hard. They are taught to always look at the teacher when he or she is talking, and they learn maths chants to reinforce basic skills and to help them do mental maths in dizzyingly quick time. Students are also taken on trips to broaden their horizons – although they have to earn the privilege. Fifth graders visit Washington to reinforce what they have learned about citizenship, while sixth graders learn team work in the wilds of Utah. In seventh grade they study social justice in California, looking at the gulf between the richest and poorest high schools in Los Angeles, and visiting social projects.

“KIPP is totally kid-focussed,” says Hill. “If a student needs driving home 45 minutes, then we will do it. When we are hiring, we are looking for teachers who can tell stories about their kids. If you’ve been teaching four years and don’t have stories about your kids, we don’t want you!” He readily hugs students – taboo in most schools – pointing out, “We’re creating a family atmosphere, and hugs are what families do.”

A second KIPP middle school has opened in Newark and a high school is due to open in the autumn. Nathan Smalley, 28, will be the principal and has visited 36 high-achieving schools around the country to shape his ideas.

Meanwhile teacher Dan Kelly is visiting TEAM Academy to see if he would like to teach here. “I’ve walked around for the last hour and a half,” he says. “And I haven’t heard any student say anything negative.” It is not like that, he says, in his school in Harlem.

At this point, 14-year-old Quyama Wheeler comes into the teachers’ room to show Hill to letter she has just got from Exeter College, one of the US’s top private schools, offering her a full scholarship. Her aim is to become a paediatrician and open a hospital in Newark. “The teachers here care,” she says. “In my old school the teachers would tell us we weren’t going to be anyone. Here they helped me to motivate myself and to be self-reliant.”

Many KIPP students go on to private schools, and parents are hugely supportive of the school. “Even the most drug-addicted parent wants the best for their child,” points out Hill. But not everyone loves KIPP. Teacher unions and local education boards can both feel threatened by the astonishing results the schools achieve.

So would the model work in England? Ryan Hill points out that the fundamentals of good teaching are the same anywhere. Small schools with a disciplined culture, great teachers, high aspirations, and an engagement with every child will always get success.

And the UK education system is already largely shaped by innovations taken from America. Sure Start grew out of HighScope, specialist secondary schools were based on magnet schools, and academies were modelled on charter schools. We even have a version of Teach For America -- Teach First – which could provide the lifeblood for KIPP-style schools. In fact, British educators have visited KIPP schools in New York, and KIPP ideas are already filtering into some schools here.

But the high-voltage commitment at TEAM Academy, and the inspirational schooling sparked into life there, clearly spring out of a national culture rooted deeply in ideas of personal striving.

So while KIPP ideas might move readily enough to England, their essence could be easily lost if they were to be bound by educational bureaucracy, or delivered with even a hint of British scepticism or reserve. Those who want to make it work here will be need to think very hard indeed about just what needs to be in place if British students are to get all the full-on KIPP experience.

What are KIPP schools?

A growing network of free, non-selective schools, set up in urban areas of the USA to put poor students on the road to college. Most are middle schools.

How did they start?

Out of Teach For America, which gives bright graduates two-year placements in difficult schools. In 1994 two idealistic young teachers from this programme launched a middle school in Houston, Texas.

Who goes to them?

12,000 students, 80 per cent from low-income families, and 90 per cent either Afro-American or Hispanic/Latino.

How do they work?

Parents, students and teachers sign a commitment to long hours and hard work. Students study from 7.30am to 5.00pm, plus every other Saturday and in the summer. They also do nightly homework.

How do students do?

Eight out of 10 students who complete eighth grade with KIPP go to college, compared to about one out of 10 low-income students nationally. KIPP alumnae have won over £6m in scholarships.

How are they funded?

With a mixture of public and private funds. The Gates Foundation is helping KIPP open high schools.

What is the KIPP foundation?

An organisation set up in 2000, with the founders of Gap, to spread KIPP nationally. It trains school leaders, recruits teachers and helps found new schools.

And the future?

This March, KIPP in Houston announced a £50m expansion, with 35 new campuses, creating a network bit enough to rival the city’s existing school system.