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School's in for summer: KIPP Academy opens its doors to students on July 13

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2009 - Six weeks into their summer vacation, about 90 fifth-graders in St. Louis will give up the fun and return to the classroom to become members of the inaugural class at a different kind of middle school, KIPP Inspire Academy.

The goal is to instill every middle schooler at KIPP with the mind-set and skills to attend the best public and private high schools and ultimately the best public and private colleges.

KIPP's forumula for turning low performers into high achievers can be easily summarized: no excuses. Youngsters have a daunting school routine: nearly 10 hours of class time each school day, 90 minutes of homework each night, and morning classes every other Saturday. KIPP also equips its teachers will cell phones. If a kid is baffled by an assignment that the parent cannot solve, the kid can call the teacher for help as late as 9 p.m.

KIPP Inspire is the newest member of the Knowledge Is Power Program's network of more than 60 schools nationwide, including one in Kansas City. The local school leader is Jeremy Esposito, a boyish, 26-year-old who came here from Philadelphia. He grew up in Connecticut, graduated from Northwestern University and taught as part of Teach for America before joining KIPP.

Esposito hopes to enroll about 90 youngsters in a refurbished school building at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church at 2647 Ohio Ave., near Gravios Avenue in the Fox Park neighborhood. The school will add a grade a year through eighth grade and eventually accommodate 340 students. Classes begin July 13, followed by a one-week break in August. The school term ends next June.

When people hear about KIPP, they assume it's a typical charter school. But nothing is typical about KIPP, especially this one. Its sponsor is Washington University, the first big-name private university to sponsor a KIPP school. As a sponsor, Washington University will receive 1.5 percent of KIPP's allocation of state school funding.

University will take active role

The university's role won't be a passive one, Esposito says.

Wash U. students will tutor KIPP students each day from 5 to 6 p.m. The university's well-known Brown School of Social Work will provide resources to address family and home problems that might impede a child's learning. Esposito says the social work school's involvement is modeled on an approach by Geoffrey Canada, a Harvard-trained educator. Canada's Harlem Children's Zone program of social, medical and educational services is showing that poor kids can perform as well in school as affluent kids.

In addition, parents of KIPP students will be able to take courses - in adult education and parenting workshops, for example - to help in rearing their children. Esposito also envisions partnerships with KIPP parents and Wash U's medical and law schools.

Joining The KIPP Family

All this help will make KIPP different, but it doesn't explain why KIPP schools stand out.

Esposito says, "What makes us different is that we talk about building a team environment with families and our kids. It means very, very high expectations for academics as well as for behavior, so that we have schools where kids care for each other and help each other out. We also work closely with students and families to build that atmosphere."

Add to that KIPP's team of highly motivated teachers for reading, writing, math, science and social studies. The school will also have a literacy specialist and perhaps a special ed teacher.

No Magic Bullet

Esposito has been combing the Fox neighborhood, handing out brochures and meeting with small groups of parents to explain the KIPP model. That's followed by one-on-one sessions with the parents who sign up their children.

"We sit down with that family to learn about its experiences and the child's experience in education to make sure they understand what KIPP is" -- and is not.

Esposito says some people look for "that magic bullet" that will suddenly transform children, but he says that's not KIPP's approach. "A lot of our kids who are significantly behind will need significant time to catch up."

He says KIPP believes in reaching children where they are and devoting the time to help them reach and exceed grade level.

"At KIPP we believe every single child can learn. They need to be put in a school environment that's caring and supportive, but challenging and demanding, with high-quality instructions."

KIPP has a well-deserved reputation for helping poor students learn. But even it has had a few missteps. A small number of schools, perhaps four nationwide, still struggle to bring kids up to speed.

This handful of schools hardly overshadows the program's overall success. Typically students are two or three grade levels behind when they enroll at KIPP as fifth graders. A KIPP study shows that the average fifth-grade student beginning in KIPP scores in the 40th percentile in math and the 32nd percentile in reading based on norm-referenced exams, which compare a student's performance to their peers nationally. After four years in KIPP, the youngsters tend to score in the 82nd percentile in math and 60th percentile in reading. That's not bad, considering that kids scoring at the 50th percentile are considered at grade level and are outperforming five out of 10 peers nationally.

More KIPP Schools on Drawing Board

The first KIPP school here may determine the speed at which other KIPP schools open in St. Louis. The goal is to open five in the next decade. Esposito says communities without KIPP schools tend not to understand the value of the KIPP method.

"It's for us to go out and educate people about how KIPP is different. We've seen around the country that KIPP works, and we want to make sure we can provide that success for St. Louis students who really need it."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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