KIPP: Earning the right to learn
by Nicole Gervasio
“Getting down to the business of learning,” said KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella, means getting students into the habit of earning.
At KIPP schools, students “earn” everything, including uniform shirts, seats in class, and annual far-flung field trips. The discipline system is based on rewards, trust, and second chances, but is also highly structured and characterized by swift consequences for breaking rules.
“Earning makes me … want to do great things to see what else can happen,” said Michael DeLeon, an 8 th grader at KIPP Philadelphia Charter School on North Broad St.
The school is one of 82 charter middle schools, including another in its first year in West Philadelphia, operated in 19 states through the highly acclaimed Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).
Opened in 2003, KIPP’s North Philadelphia school serves 340 students in grades 5-8. Most are African American or Hispanic; 84 percent are low income.
Mannella is proud that the school “has a reputation for being able to handle the really tough kids.” Sixteen percent of students receive special education services.
KIPP’s philosophy is that there aren’t bad kids, just kids who make bad choices. “Here kids try to get better,” said Natahja Heath, a 5th grader. “When you fight, they ask you what happened to make it start, even though they could expel you.”
KIPP enforces Act 26, the zero-tolerance policy requiring expulsion for students who bring weapons to school, although Mannella disagrees with it. Zero tolerance doesn’t let students prove they’ve learned from mistakes, he said, adding that “we really work hard to keep kids in the building” after serious infractions.
Of those who are asked to leave – about 10 a year – half reapply to KIPP. If accepted, said principal Eric Leslie, “they have to re-earn everything, but ultimately the experience of leaving and coming back really affects them.”
Demetrius Smith, a 7th grader, was expelled for bullying. After four months at his old school, he reapplied to KIPP and pledged not to repeat his mistake. “If I didn’t go to KIPP, I’d probably be … running the streets,” he said. “KIPP changes people.”
Character development, Leslie added, is as important as “reading levels and what kids need in math ... if we are going to correct, we must redirect.”
For 5th and 6th graders, KIPP “dollars” maintain discipline. Students’ “paychecks” increase for obedience and decrease otherwise.
Students exchange paychecks for items in the school store. Each Friday, paychecks reach parents as progress reports. In the spring, the paychecks determine who attends the field trips.
For 7th and 8th grades, a merit/demerit system determines who earns plastic bracelets demonstrating levels of privilege. Students with red, white, and blue bracelets, for example, can use the bathroom without teachers’ permission.
Teachers place students committing serious infractions on KIPP’s “behavior plan” (BP), a “ladder of discipline” involving escalating degrees of social isolation. Students leave BP by drawing up goals, each worth KIPP dollars. Within three days, students usually achieve their goals and recoup their paychecks.
Only about half to two-thirds of students earn the trips. Seventh graders attend a Southern civil rights tour and 8th graders head to Puerto Rico.
The importance of building trust is evident. Students’ lockers don’t have locks. Excellence contracts, signed by parents, students and teachers, line the hallways.
Teachers reinforce the discipline through rigorous, engaging classes that create a “culture of achievement.” Instead of just “giving you work,” Michael said, “They put flavor in it … not like other schools where classes are monotonous.”
Teachers also scrupulously enforce the rules. “If there are different rules in every classroom, you’re not going to know what to follow,” Mannella said.
Semaj Jones, an 8th grader, said KIPP helps him stay on task, unlike at his old school, where “they’d yell in my face and tell me to go to the principal’s office” for falling asleep.
Semaj, “KIPPster of the Year” 2009 winner, has improved academically and behaviorally. “Now he’s using that energy for something different, not anger and frustration,” said Leslie.
Critics charge that KIPP, which builds its schools one grade at a time and so far has not been involved in school takeovers, seeks out higher-performing students while kicking out the troubled. But Mannella denies “creaming.”
Yearly, he said, KIPP loses about 10 percent of its enrollment, 30 to 35 kids, most because they move. Of incoming fifth graders this year, only two started at grade level for reading and none for math. “If we’re creaming,” he said, “we’re terrible at it.”