This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2008: KANSAS CITY — Across the street from the forward-looking kids at KIPP Endeavor Academy in Kansas City sits the other side of the coin — down-on-their-luck men who sit on a crumbling rock fence, drink wine or beer from brown paper bags, listen to a booming hip-hop beat on a car radio and watch the world pass them by. The scene is hardly uplifting for children trying to hold fast to a KIPP-inspired dream of making it out of this neighborhood and into college. But sights like these do not discourage KIPP officials.
“We are called to be in this neighborhood,” says Jon Richard (pronounced ri-SHARD), KIPP’s school leader. “We take walks with our KIPPsters and they see those individuals. We talk about the choices we have in life. Everyone has a story. It’s how you use your story that makes you different.”
He adds that conversations about the pull between KIPPster and hipster cultures are necessary because “this is where our students live; this is their circle of influence. We create a circle of influence inside KIPP. You go to college and make the world a better place."
The school is in Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Historic District, which spans several city blocks and was known during Prohibition for its bustling nightlife, jazz and the Pendergast political machine. With its weed-choked lots and vagrants, the area is now one of the neediest in Kansas City. It also has its hopeful signs. Aside from KIPP, these include projects that commemorate the birth of jazz and Negro Leagues Baseball.
KIPP’s track record shows that social problems beyond the school door need not interrupt a child’s dreams. Eighty percent of KIPP graduates go to college in spite of growing up in poor families and living in homes where some parents are overwhelmed by problems and indifferent to a child’s school activities. But KIPP tries to find a way to get these parents involved. Each KIPP student must sign a “Commitment to Excellence” form in his or her home. This gives KIPP officials a way to get into the living room and meet the families. Just as all students have the phone numbers of KIPP teachers, so do the parents.
“We urge them to call often, especially when they have questions,” Richard says of the parents.
In addition all parents are required to attend two conferences and sign biweekly reports on their children’s progress at KIPP. Finally, Richard says, many parents accompany KIPP on learning or field trips. But Richard says it is unrealistic to expect these parents to be as involved as a typical suburban parent might be.
“Many parents are single moms and work three jobs to make ends meet,” he says. “Mandating school volunteer hours for them, in my opinion, is unwarranted stress.”
In an ideal world, Richard says, all children would learn about work ethic, humility, integrity and other character-building qualities.
“Our students are faced with a society that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to teaching these things anymore,” he says. “Home lives are tough. The students spend 9.5 hours a day at KIPP. We have to teach them more than just academics. They have to learn that it’s not just learning and being smart, but that working hard and being nice will take you farther in life.”