This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When DeTony Thomas was in fourth grade, four long years ago, he went to a school that sounds like the model for a badly clichéd movie about the problems with modern urban education.
He saw a new fight every day, he says, and there wasn’t a whole lot of homework. “It was too easy and boring,” he says.
Phallen Briggs has similar memories of her old school.
“We really did nothing,” she says. “Basically, what we did all day was have recess. There was no respect for the teachers. We didn’t learn anything.”
And her cousin Cameron Briggs says when a teacher left his old school, classes were combined so he was one of 60 students with the remaining teacher. Not that anyone needed special attention to do advanced work, he says.
“We were still doing adding and subtracting,” Cameron says, noting that he could easily get straight A’s without doing any homework.
Then the three became part of the inaugural class at KIPP Inspire Academy in south St. Louis, in the fall of 2009, and all of that changed in a big way.
Now, as part of the first class being promoted out of KIPP to high schools across the area, they look back at four years marked by long hours – including school on Saturdays and for three weeks in the summer – filled with hard work assigned by teachers dedicated to their success.
“When you come from a background where no one is pushing you, except the people you live with, it’s hard,” says fellow eighth-grader Kaylan House. “But when you come to KIPP everyone inspires you to do the best you can.”
That contrasts to her earlier classes in another charter school where, she said, “I wasn’t being challenged. I had a lot of advanced teachers, but the curriculum was boring.”
Their earlier lax education showed up in the scores that most KIPP students brought to the school when it opened. Jeremy Esposito, leader of the school, notes that most students who come to KIPP Inspire are years behind in their basic skills.
Now, he can point to numbers in the latest KIPP report card that shows steady progress, to a level where students at the charter school are performing better than their counterparts in the St. Louis Public Schools, if not always at the average level for Missouri students statewide.
The increase is sharpest in math. In 5th grade, KIPP students in St. Louis had 29 percent placing in the top two categories on standardized tests, compared with 26 percent for SLPS students and 55 percent statewide. By 7th grade, the numbers were 67 percent for KIPP, compared with 29 percent in SLPS and 60 percent statewide.
Esposito says improvements in math are easier to achieve because it’s a more objective subject. “With highly talented math teachers,” he told the Beacon, “you can make more gains fast.”
But, he added, the progress shown in language arts and science as well should be enough to overcome the myth of the achievement gap: the belief that minority students – KIPP Inspire’s student body is 98 percent African-American – aren’t capable of learning as much as white kids.
“The commitment kids and parents make to do more is a huge part of it,” Esposito said. “The other part is our teachers, who do whatever it takes for our kids to be successful. It doesn’t matter what you may struggle with. If you work hard and if you try and if you ask for help ... anything is possible. You just need to put in the time and effort.
“Our kids know they are capable of doing that. We try to instill that into our kids. They get a lot more support. They can take the lessons they learn from here and leave an impact on the city in a positive way.”
Knowledge is power
Since its founding in 1994 as the Knowledge Is Power Program, KIPP has been held up nationally as a model of what a charter school can be and how it can help underserved students achieve.
It defined its mission this way: “to create a classroom that helped children develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to succeed in college and build a better tomorrow for their communities.”
The first classrooms were in middle schools in Houston and in New York City, starting in 1995. Four years later, they ranked among the highest-performing schools in their communities.
In 2000, founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin formed a partnership with Doris and Don Fisher, founders of the Gap, to train school leaders to spread their vision nationwide. Today, KIPP schools enroll more than 41,000 students in 125 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
KIPP Inspire, at 2647 Ohio Ave., in the former Catholic school at St. Francis DeSales Church, began with 80 fifth-graders and has added a grade each year. It will stop at eighth grade. In partnership with its sponsor, Washington University, its vision is to grow eventually to five schools – elementary and middle schools in north and south St. Louis and a centrally located high school.
The next school to open will be an elementary school in north St. Louis. A school leader, Tiara Abu, has been hired and will serve as a Fisher Fellow for the next year to survey best practices and get the school ready to open in the fall of 2014.
Asked why it was taking so long, Esposito replied:
“We’re not in the business of operating low-quality schools. We will open schools as soon as we are ready.”
No site for the north St. Louis elementary school has been chosen yet, but Kelly Garrett, who runs KIPP’s operations in St. Louis, says they are “deep in search mode” and looking at lots of good options.
The formula for success at KIPP Inspire is similar to what has worked at its other schools: rigorous academics, character development, hard work, long hours and dedicated teachers. As a charter school, it is supported by tax dollars and charges no tuition.
Its partnership with Washington U. also provides tutoring for students through a program called Each One Teach One, which pairs KIPP students with college tutors for one hour four days a week, in the late afternoon.
That hour-long session comes after KIPP Inspire’s regular school day, which begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. There are also four-hour Saturday sessions and three weeks of classes in the summer. Teachers are expected to be available via cell phone in the evenings for help with homework.
That kind of dedication makes up for what at first glance doesn’t seem to be the best physical environment for learning. The building has window-unit air conditioners and not the most welcoming façade. On a recent morning, praise for KIPP that had been chalked onto the sidewalk in front of the school was punctuated with a smashed Bud beer can.
Inside, the school staff has made the atmosphere more inviting by posting college pennants on the walls, to remind students of their ultimate goal. As high-school acceptance letters came in for this fall, from places like Nerinx Hall, MICDS and Metro, they were taped to a wall for everyone to see.
So students have to learn and teachers have to teach despite a lack of amenities that other schools may boast about and use to recruit. With the kinds of hours KIPP demands, students and teachers must be passionate about what they are doing.
The job description for would-be staff members at KIPP Inspire says they need to be results-oriented, demonstrate excellence, exude enthusiasm and commitment, persevere, have strong team and interpersonal skills and be driven by the schools mission. The final qualification: KIPP teachers “Are joyful. We love what we do.”
'It made me have more grit'
Asked about that joyfulness, eighth-grade students who will be moving on after a promotion ceremony on May 24 at Washington U. agreed that the quality is a big part of what they like about KIPP Inspire. Sporting shirts that proclaimed them the high school graduating class of 2017, they were eager to share their enthusiasm for the KIPP experience.
“They put their joy into what they’re teaching,” said DeTony Thomas. “Some teachers are so joyful when you give an answer wrong so they can teach you.”
And, added Phallen Briggs, who looks forward to a career in law or medicine, the staff’s enthusiasm can be contagious.
“They inspire me to do something big. My dreams are inspired by what I want to do here.”
Her cousin Cameron Briggs put it this way when asked about the rigor of the KIPP curriculum:
“It made me have more grit. It made me want to push more.
“Before, I wasn’t thinking about my future. I was just thinking about right now. They made me see I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Even going to school on Saturdays, when the emphasis was more on activities than pure academics, didn’t faze students like Da’Nyjia Partee.
“People would say to me, ‘You go to school on Saturdays?’ But I don’t think about it like that.”
And the word family came up a lot when the students were talking about how hard the teachers work to help them succeed.
“I think they are mostly happy when we meet our goals,” said Kaylan House. “I think they appreciate all our hard work and our work ethic.”
Said David Scott:
“The teachers care. The students care. It’s like a family. There’s a connection between everyone.”
And Partee – who appreciates it when teachers say “thank you” -- said she wants that family feel to extend to her own family, wanting her young brothers to go to KIPP as well.
“I feel like KIPP made me a better person,” she said. “I was humbled, and it kept me balanced. Even though I can get frustrated with school, I love it.”
And as their time at KIPP comes to a close, they have made clear that they would miss the long hours and the hard work.
Andrea Turner, the assistant school leader for grades 7 and 8, who like the students has been at the school since the start, put it this way:
“It’s so funny. They used to be, I can’t wait to leave this school. Now they ask, can’t we just stop time?”