2009 09 01_philadelphia mag_pdf


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2009 09 01_philadelphia mag_pdf

  1. 1. September 2009 from families so poor that they qualify for Is This the Best School government-subsidized school meals. in Philadelphia? After breakfast, the students trooped outside for a morning in a nearby park, a rare square block of By John Marchese grass and shade in this rather forlorn neighborhood that spreads in the shadow of the giant empty hulk that once house the Botany 500 Cynics say urban education is hopeless. With factory. In the park, the students jumped into some old-fashioned ideas, North Philly’s KIPP games of kickball and ran obstacle courses. They School is proving them wrong. signed each other’s yearbooks. Normal stuff. As you might expect, the last day of classes It only became clear later that morning, as the before summer break at the unusual school student’s reassembled in the school cafeteria, that tucked into a former fur vault at the corner of unlike so many schools run by the Philadelphia Broad and Lehigh wasn’t filled with a lot of formal School District in poor neighborhoods, this wasn’t education. The students, nearly 300 fifth-through- the average child-warehousing center. While a few eighth-graders, gathered as usual a little after 7 students got to step forward and receive prizes for a.m. to eat breakfast in the fourth-floor room achievement in mathematics (a calculator), social where the walls are decorated with hand-painted studies (a globe) and science (a bubble-gum- inspirational sayings, from Thomas Edison on hard making machine, as a joke about the school’s work to Oprah Winfrey on character. strict policy forbidding the substance), nearly every student received a special medal to hang Dressed in uniforms – khaki pants and bright red around his or her neck, recognition for resilience or blue polo shorts – most of the kids were from and grit. the neighborhood, and they reflected its demographics. All but a handful were African- American or Hispanic, and a large majority came
  2. 2. And the fact is, at this school, nearly all of the summer vacation today might be walking out of students are beating the substantial odds against the best school in Philadelphia. them. Of the 77 eighth-graders who were moving on to high school, 100 percent had been accepted to college preparatory schools, including St. Joe’s “People say we’re like a cult,” says Marc Prep. Overwhelmingly, and throughout the four Mannella, an intense, athletic-looking 34-year-old grade levels, the students’ scores on standardized who founded KIPP Philadelphia in 2003, served as tests met or exceeded those of their peers – not its first principal, and is now its CEO. “But people only at other inner-city public schools, but even say that about Disney, too.” when compared to the more posh enclaves of suburbia. A week or so before promotion day, I spent a morning at KIPP with Mannella, trying to instantly develop a shorthand system so my notes could Of the 77 eighth-graders somehow keep up with his fast-paced stream of opinions, theories, statistics and jokes. who were moving on to high school, 100 percent I arrived at the school just as the students were finishing breakfast and dispersing to their had been accepted to classrooms. From first appearances – the bright college preparatory and clean walls and floors – and from my initial encounter with a polite and helpful young man schools. who directed me to the principal’s office, I sensed something unique. When Bill Gates visited a KIPP This school, known as KIPP (short of “Knowledge school, he told a crowd during a speech not long Is Power Program”), is deliberately placed in one ago, the dynamism in the classroom at first struck of Philadelphia’s most hardscrabble him as “very bizarre.” According the Gates, “The neighborhoods, and accepts children on a come- whole spirit and attitude in [KIPP] schools is very one-come-all lottery system. Observed from any different than in the normal public school.” angle, it’s one of the true bright stars in an educational constellation unfortunately filled with Later, I asked a man whose business has taken dwarves and black holes. An independently run him into a number of Philadelphia public schools public charter school aligned with a much-lauded and this KIPP school at Broad and Lehigh if there and fast-growing nonprofit network that this year was a big difference. “Are you kidding?” he said. will have 82 schools operating in 19 states and the “the public schools are like prisons.” District of Columbia, KIPP has enthusiastic fans ranging from new Education Secretary Arne When I finally found Mannella that morning, he Duncan to best-selling journalist-cum- seated me at a small round table in his office, management-guru Malcolm Gladwell to which was crowded with sports paraphernalia. gazillionaire businessman and philanthropist Bill “Our kids come here knowing that it’s safe, warm Gates. Could this kind of school be the way to give and inviting – a clean, well-lighted place,” he said. a substantial life to unprepared, under-supported “We can’t control what goes on out there, but in children who each year are thrown in human here, we can control it.” That said, Mannella waves at overwhelmed public schools? Is KIPP a added, “There’s no magic pixie dust at work here.” model for how to make Philadelphia’s public school system work again? The son of a biophysicist, Mannella studied biology and psychology at the University of Rochester, “No other program has shown gains as great for then signed up for a tow-year stint with Teach For as many poor children as KIPP,” says education America, a very selective program that takes columnist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, high-achieving graduates of good colleges, who has written one book about KIPP and is marches them through a short boot-camp in working on another. Though it cost them and teaching techniques, then send then to teach at their families nothing except a lot more time and schools in poor urban and rural districts. effort, and a willingness to buy into educational ideas so old-fashioned and commonsensical they Mannella ended up in West Baltimore, teaching seem wildly radical, these students starting seventh-grade science. “I got my butt handed to me,” he says. Still, teaching appealed to him. He
  3. 3. moved to Philadelphia and got a job teaching at a happiness second,” she recalled. “One of the charter school in Logan. Then he won a fellowship major differences between me and other kids to be trained in school leadership and around the neighborhood was they couldn’t quite administration. It was sponsored by what was comprehend why I was in school so long. And then a little-known charter-school organization summer. And Saturday.” with a funny acronym for a name. KIPP had been founded in the mid-‘90s by two white-guy At her new, fancy private boarding school, she basketball buffs, like Mannella – Ivy League said, “Academically, it’s harder. But because I’ve graduates and Teach For America alumni Dave been at KIPP, it’s ultimately easier. I have skills Levin and Mike Feinberg. from KIPP that helped me go through my freshmen year. It was a breeze.” Like any decent cult, KIPP has a founding myth, in this case codified in the book published earlier this The first skill new Kippsters are drilled in is year by Mathews. Its title is taken from the KIPP described by the acronym SLANT. Like more organization’s motto: Work Hard. Be Nice. How teaching time, it’s another jaw-dropping Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising innovation that demands all students do the Schools in America.” following in class: Sit up straight. The promise of KIPP, the thing that Look and Listen. makes it seem there must be at least a little pixie Ask and Answer questions. dust at work, is that throughout the organization’s Nod your head. growth, its school have taken the same poor and Track the speaker with your eyes. unprepared students that most school districts woefully fail and lifted them from the lowest levels In his book, Jay Mathews reports that older people of competency and achievement to the highest. At who visit KIPP schools often say they’re reminded its foundation, the stunningly radical educational of parochial-school culture in a bygone era, minus approach KIPP takes is the injunction contained in the nuns with rulers rapping knuckles. the first part of its motto: Work Hard. Beyond the heavy instructional load and the strict Students at KIPP schools – they call themselves discipline, the school ethos stresses personal KIPPsters – are required to arrive at school at responsibility. “You have to earn everything,” one 7:30 a.m., and stay until 5 p.m. (3:30 on student told me, “even your seat in class.” Fifth- Fridays). Every other Saturday, there’s a half-day graders begin KIPP sitting on the floor, and only of school. A 14-day summer session is required of when they can ace a quiz on the principles of all students. KIPP administrators estimate that SLANT are they allowed a seat at the table. under this regime, the kids spend about 60 percent more time “on task” – that is, actually KIPP founders Feinberg and Levin did conjure up being taught. And what is taught is reading, one magic trick: appealing to the budding writing, mathematics and critical thinking. In consumer capitalist in all American kids by addition, it’s expected that teachers will assign creating a monetary system based on KIPP two hours of homework each day. Though dollars. Each child starts an account on the first parents are strongly encouraged to help, KIPP just day of school, and good behavior and academic about mandates that students telephone their achievement earn dollars that can be used at a teachers in the evening with any homework school store. Students’ KIPP bank accounts help questions; all teachers receive a school-issue cell them qualify for elaborate yearly class trips that phone and are on call until 9 p.m. every school have become institutionalized throughout the KIPP night. system. Philadelphia fifth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and among other things, recite I spoke with one of KIPP Philadelphia’s success Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech stories, a 1 5-year-old named Carley Burney- near the spot where it was originally delivered. Heath who had just finished her freshmen year at Sixth-graders go hiking and camping in Utah’s the very selective West-town School, a boarding Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and the Grand school in West Chester. In her time at KIPP, her Canyon. Seventh grade takes a tour of Southern school day began at five in the morning and cities significant in the civil rights movement. The ended after nine at night. “Homework first; eighth grade flies to Puerto Rico. The trips cost
  4. 4. “If you come to KIPP, in the year 2017, you will go to college.” Later, I talked with an open-faced and sweet- tempered sixth-grader named Marquise, who told me, “At my other school, they didn’t care. At the students’ families $20 apiece. “It’s a way for KIPP, they love you and care about you. Back at us to extend the life experience beyond Broad and my old school, the teachers didn’t trust anybody. Lehigh,” says Marc Mannella. Here, they actually trust us with their phone number. It says a lot.” These perks cost the school extra of course. So do music and art instruction, an athletic program, and the extra salaries for teachers – 15 percent “Do you know what the year 2017 is?” above the equivalent Philly teachers union scale – asks the principal. to compensate for the extra hours. In addition to state and federal funding, KIPP must find another Two 10-year-old boys give her quizzical looks. $1,200 per student to meet its needs (though its One scans the ceiling as if the answer might be total cost per student is still below that of the hidden there. Philadelphia school district). That funding gap is filled by contributions from foundations, “If you come to KIPP,” says the principal, a self- corporations and individuals. Most KIPP schools, assured, stylish and non-nonsense 27-year-old or clusters of schools, have full-time fund-raising named Shawna Wells, “in the year 2017, you will executives. go to college.” Not long before I met Mannella, he’d hooked a It’s a rainy June evening, and Wells has driven out $4.6 million grant from the Charter School Growth of Southwest Philly and parked her shiny little Fund, a Colorado-=based investment program. It Mercedes sedan on a street lined with very will help fund his 10-year-plan to open nine more modest two-story homes fronted by tumble-down KIPP schools, including elementary and high porches. The street is pocked with empty lots, schools, to form two clusters, one in North and and a number of houses are boarded up. Wells is one in West Philadelphia. If achieved as now here to recruit students for her new KIPP school. conceived, the growth plan would give KIPP a total enrollment of about 4,400 students in 10 schools Wells, a Feasterville native, studied English at the in Philadelphia. University of Vermont. She joined Mannella’s team as a teacher, has served as KIPP’s local All the quantifiable stuff – the test scores, school director of development, and this fall will be schedules, budgets – illustrates the seriousness principal of KIPP’s new West Philadelphia with which KIPP takes the Work Hard part of its Preparatory Charter School, which she’ll run out of motto. Getting at the Be Nice part is much more classrooms leased from the school district at 59th difficult and slippery. We were talking about this and Baltimore. when Mannella noticed a compact man with the look of a small but powerful wingback walking by The home she enters tonight to visit boys I’ll call his office, and jumped up to invite him in. Michael and Tariq displays signs of intractable Kaheem Evans lives in the neighborhood and has poverty – threadbare chairs and couches, a carpet a daughter, a stepdaughter and a brother stained beyond hope, ceilings with gaping holes, attending KIPP. He had worked for the school the working appliances propped on top of broken previous year as a “character support specialist,” appliances. The living room has been made neat but there wasn’t enough money in the budget for for her visit, but when Wells insists on sitting at the job this year, though Evans still hangs around the dining room table, the two boys and their the school and helps out when he can. mother scramble to clear off empty beer bottles and leftover food. Evans sprawled in a chair and talked about KIPP for five minutes or so, and in that time he used “You’re going to hear me say this over and over,” the word “love” a half-dozen times. “They really Wells says after everyone is seated. “Work Hard. love these kids here,” he said at one point, “and Be Nice. There are no excuses. There are no they’ll do anything they have to do to help them shortcuts. We work hard, and we’re going to succeed.” college. But we know we have a mountain to climb if we’re going to get there.” Few parents of KIPP students have attended, let alone graduated
  5. 5. from, college, so the schools immerse their percent, but it’s been improving steadily. In any students in symbols of universities, from pennants case, KIPP has already started to address the festooning the halls to each homeroom named issue by allowing job sharing and introducing after its resident teacher’s alma mater. other techniques to temper teacher burnout. If you ever dip your toe into the vast ocean of In Jay Mathews’s fine book about the debate about why so many schools have failed so founding of KIPP, it’s striking how much of this many of their students, particularly those in poor educational idea – whether it qualifies as a cult or urban and rural areas, you realize there’s plenty not – depended not on studies or curricula reviews of blame to go around. By now it’s commonplace or committee recommendations, but on two to point to lazy, hidebound teachers and the smart, ambitious and inordinately dedicated unions that protect their short hours, long teachers who were willing to work their tails off. vacations and tenured incompetence. No doubt The rise of KIPP is an inspiring tale, but any peek that theory has some validity, but as Mathews’s into its future quickly forces a question: Is it truly book on KIPP makes clear, it was two unionized possible to find enough teachers like that to public-school teachers who mentored and inspired replicate on a large scale? Levin and Feinberg as they hatched the idea of KIPP. To get some perspective after I first visited with Marc Mannella, I called an old friend who’d taught So far, the Philadelphia teachers union has kept in a number of schools in the Philadelphia school its distance from KIPP. “I sat next to [union district over a 30-year career. He’s very smart, a president Jerry] Jordan at a conference,” Mannella highly accomplished musician, and one of the reports, “and I believe he had no idea who I was.” most conscientious people I know. As I told him (Jordan declined to comment on KIPP because the about the demands put on teachers by KIPP – the union doesn’t represent any teachers at the long days, the on-call evenings, the Saturdays, school.) the mandatory summer school – he literally gasped. “Wow,” he said, “Wow! How long can For her part, schools superintendent Arlene people stay in a job like that?” Ackerman has supported charter schools in general and KIPP in particular. But she has done Mannella is enough of a CEO by now that he it in rather bland bureaucrat-speak. “We look insists on labeling the issue a “challenge” rather forward to working with KIPP,” Ackerman said in a than a problem. But he addresses it frankly. prepared statement after the announcement of After KIPP opened in 2003, he admits, one of the Mannella’s big grant to grow in Philadelphia, “to four fifth-grade teachers quit during the first year, see how its commitment to expanding in overwhelmed by the hours; another was let go. Philadelphia can be aligned with our strategic Their replacements didn’t return for a second plan’s emphasis on providing a range of quality year. Turn-over among teachers in general is school choices across our city.” notoriously high, and according to KIPP’s national spokesman, Steve Mancini, KIPP’s seems higher “There is nothing going on in this building that couldn’t be replicated,” Mannella says. “What we do is not proprietary. Nothing would make me happier than if the Philly school district copied us.” KIPPsters arrive at school at 7:30 a.m., and stay until The late-spring light is fading by the time Shawna Wells finishes explaining the KIPP idea to the two 5 p.m. Every other 10-year-olds and their mother. She has brought a one-page contract with her. She reads her Saturday, there’s a half- commitment aloud and signs it. She works with day of school. the boys to get through their section. Their mother reads her part. because principals are given total control and there are only five schools with unions, so teacher KIPP skeptics say the school attracts children with who don’t fit the peculiar demands of KIPP’s parents who are more concerned and involved philosophy can usually be removed at will. than the normal poor city family. I ask Mannella Mannella gave me figures that showed his overall and Wells about that, and each insists that they teacher turnover rate since 2003 has been 27
  6. 6. recruit in public locations – often handling out stop thinking about the simple yet stunning leaflets at stores and churches – and accept promise she made to those two boys. It’s a anyone who applies, or run a lottery when there promise that many more school leaders will have are more applicants than chairs. “If we’re to make and fulfill – and soon – or the promise of skimming off the cream,” Mannella says, “we’re all of us together will be lost. really not doing a very good job of it.” Michael and Tariq certainly have a concerned mother. She looks over her part of the contract carefully and enthusiastically. “We make these commitments,” she reads aloud, “because we want to develop the character, knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in top-quality high schools, colleges and the competitive world beyond.” She smiles broadly at her boys and signs the paper. “Congratulations!” Wells tells Michael and Tariq. “You’re Kippsters!” She pulls out a bright yellow KIPP t-shirt and her digital camera, and poses each boy, draping the shirt of his chest, then takes a picture. “I’m going to show you this picture at your graduation from high school,” the teacher tells the boys. “I’m going to show it to you at your graduation from college. When you get married. You get the idea.” Michael and Tariq hold the shirt in turn, their mother beaming nearby, and the sight of the boys’ excitement and pride at being part of a school is remarkable and kind of heartbreaking – heartbreaking because the mountain these kids must climb is so steep and menacing, and they seem so small and fragile. When Bill Gates was giving his talk on improving education to a gathering of mostly well- to-do and well-educated people like himself, he dangled a statistic that hangs over children like Michael and Tariq. “If you’re low-income in the United States,” Gates said, “you have a higher chance of going to jail than you do of getting a four-year degree.” There are a few other odds against these two boys as they begin their climb that are particular to Philadelphia, like a public high-school graduation rate of less than 60 percent and an adult illiteracy problem that’s even worse. I walk out of the house with Shawna Wells, and we stand on the wet West Philly street for a few minutes in a soft drizzle, chatting about the details of getting her new school started. I can’t