This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2008: KANSAS CITY -- One recent Monday morning at the KIPP charter school here, some fifth-graders were walking single-file down a corridor when a visitor introduced himself. Like little soldiers, they all stopped as if on cue, but one kid, apparently forgetting an unwritten rule, rested one arm against a bulletin board covered with Grade-A student essays while he listened to the visitor. At the risk of creating a fuss, friction or conflict, another student gently touched the kid’s arm and moved it away from the prized essays. The two students exchanged smiles as if to say, “this is the KIPP way,” then gave the visitor their full attention.
This quiet scene of one kid helping another stand erect and stay focused is a small example of how the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Endeavor Academy keeps the peace among kids and differs from many other urban schools. Like the 56 other KIPP schools nationwide, this one was set up to help once-indifferent children learn to focus on being nice, excelling in their studies and going to college. The same message will come to St. Louis in the summer of 2009 when KIPP is expected to open its first school there.
KIPP Academy opened last year with approximately 70 students. It has a student-teacher ratio of 23 to 1 and a per-pupil expenditure of $10,000. The Kansas City public school system has a student-teacher ratio of 17 to 1 and a per pupil expenditure of $13,800.
Some kids say they like KIPP because their teachers make a special effort to help them understand class work and master homework.
“At my old school, there was lots of trouble, lots of fistfights, lots of people getting suspended,” says Tyler Eddington, 10. “But people don’t do that here. That’s good because it helps me concentrate more on my studies.”
One method that KIPP has used to sidestep student misbehavior is a play banking system that allows each student to earn as much as $50 a week. Though the money is imaginary, its purchasing power is not. Kids can use it to earn T-shirts, pencils, sharpeners, book bags, binders, homework folders and snacks. But there’s more. A kid who earns an average of $38 a week over the course of the school term is eligible to take KIPP's major field trip. Throughout the year, students are treated to several smaller field trips, which KIPP calls field lessons because they are about learning as much as they are about fun.
Some of the trips are underwritten by donors. In fact, donors have given more than $600,000 to help get the Kansas City school up and running. The bulk of the donations came from the Marion Kauffman Foundation, the William T. Kemper Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.
Children, meanwhile, are learning plenty from their field lessons. Aldo Calderon, 11, still talks about the class visit to Bodies Reveal, a polymer preserved bodies exhibit in February at Kansas City’s Union Station, similar to the recent Body Worlds exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center. A gee-whiz attitude is what one might expect from a fifth grader after he views human bodies sitting or lying in odd positions. But not Aldo. He talks about how the exhibit offered a closer look at circulatory, respiratory, nervous and skeletal systems.
“It helped me better understand what we talked about in science,” he says. “I knew a little bit about the respiratory system, and I got to actually see how different systems worked.”
The major trip this school term will be to the nation’s capital -- Washington, D.C. There, the youngsters won’t just visit the usual places. Howard and Georgetown universities also will be on the schedule because KIPP’s core mission is to keep the idea of college uppermost in the minds of its students. That’s the goal that KIPP wants every kid to set from the day he or she walks into a KIPP classroom. It has been an effective campaign. KIPP reports that 80 percent of those who stick with its program attend college. That’s exceptionally high compared to most African-American public school graduates in cities.
Not that many KIPPsters aren’t behind. On average, those enrolled in Kansas City’s first class last year read, wrote and did math at the second and third grade levels. In science, their scores ranged from kindergarten to first grade.
“Lots of the children couldn’t subtract when they got here,” school leader Jon Richard (pronounced ri-SHARD) says, “but now they are adding, subtracting, doing decimals and geometry.”
The goal for the first year is to raise academic achievement by a year and a half to two years, then raise it again by two years when the children are in the sixth grade. By the time the students reach the seventh and eighth grades, Richard expects them to be ready for college prep work.
That explains why KIPP says there are no shortcuts and why its rigorous study schedule of reading, writing, math, science and history is important. Students attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, every other Saturday and three weeks during the summer. They also must complete two hours of combined homework every night in reading, writing, science, math and history.
The corridors inside KIPP are filled with plenty of banners to help the students remember why they attend the charter school.
“If there’s a problem,” one begins, “we look for a solution.” That sums up KIPP’s mission.
“We’re about accountability and no excuses and no shortcuts to college,” says Richard.
Coming up: The challenge of teaching in a KIPP Academy.