This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2008: KANSAS CITY -- When he was a teacher in Kansas City public schools, Jon Richard felt frustration because the academic gains made by his fifth graders would disappear in middle school. Now Richard (pronounced ri-SHARD) is in a position to help reverse this pattern. He is a school leader for KIPP, a charter school system that has a track record for helping kids retain knowledge and attend college.
That’s one reason teachers like Tricia Mulvaney were anxious to work at KIPP. She says she teaches history there because she’s surrounded by colleagues who work as hard as she to turn failing children into successes. As she moves through a lesson on the Civil War, Mulvaney is in complete control. Students listen attentively, raise their hands quietly before speaking, and enjoy the reward of a quietly executed high five from the teacher for answering a question correctly. In spite of the amount of material she covers in the classroom, however, it’s a rare evening when a student doesn’t call her house for help with homework.
“I might be making dinner when I get a call,” she says. “but I do whatever it takes to help them succeed.”
KIPP also helps the kids succeed by giving its teachers far more flexibility than their public school counterparts enjoy. There is no cookie-cutter curriculum, no one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Teachers can choose whatever method that works best for them, but they are held accountable for the outcome.
“A lot of students have learning disabilities,” says special ed teacher Ricky Presberry, “but they can succeed in here and in college. The answer is to figure out how we can motivate them to do better rather than simply say this kid cannot learn."
KIPP Academy has approximately 70 students. It student-teacher ratio is 23 to 1, compared to 17 to 1 for Kansas City public schools. KIPP’s per pupil expenditure is $10,000, with $7,500 coming from the state and the rest from donations. The per pupil expenditure for Kansas City public schools is $13,800.
Higher than average salaries
KIPP teachers in Kansas City earn between 15 percent and 20 percent more than public school teachers, who average $45,900. KIPP teachers also receive health benefits, insurance for vision and dental care and performance bonuses. These are based on student performance on the SAT-10, a norm-referenced test that compares KIPP fifth graders to fifth graders elsewhere.
“That’s what makes KIPP great for teachers,” says Richard, a Drake University graduate who was a bond analyst before joining the school reform movement. “The teachers I selected are leaders. They are proven: They have had results with urban students, they are passionate and they will make a difference. If KIPPsters are learning and the state grade level expectations are being met, who am I to impose a particular curricula or set of books? The teacher is a professional at KIPP and should be treated as such.”
In spite of their perks, salaries and freedom to choose how to teach, KIPP teachers don’t deny that what they are doing is hard work. The secret, they say, is that there is no secret, no short cuts to helping these children succeed. That means devoting lots of time to their jobs, showing up for work by 7 a.m. and heading home around 6 p.m.
“The challenge is to make kids believe they can succeed,” says reading instructor Liberty Bonney. “They haven’t been challenged before the way they are being challenged here. And when testing time comes up, it shows because I don’t see the panic that kids usually show.
“I’m not going to lie to you. This is exhausting work, tiring absolutely. But it’s exciting.”
Coming up: A look at the Kansas City neighborhood around the KIPP academy.