Washington News

The Seattle Times
June 7, 2004

Charter-school network seeks a foothold in Washington

By Linda Shaw, Seattle Times staff reporter

NEW YORK — Sixty-nine sets of eyes follow David Levin around a Bronx classroom as he asks students, for about the 10th time, to put their math binders on the floor without a sound.

It's an unseasonably hot May afternoon at this KIPP Academy in New York City — part of a national network of 31 middle schools, mostly charters, that would like to expand into Washington state. Levin, who some students call the "preacher," has already quizzed the fifth-graders (a combined group of two classes) on why they should sit up straight, ask questions, keep their eyes on the person speaking.

The binders present another opportunity to make a point about discipline — and life.

The first time Levin asks them to put the binders down, a clatter fills the room. Their notebooks, Levin says, deserve more respect. The second time, only one lands with a slap. Levin sends that student to the back of the room.

After at least a half-dozen more tries, and more students sent to the back, the binders finally all go down quietly.

Levin then hammers home the message: No excuses. That's one of the many mottoes at KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program.

If students really want to succeed, he says, they'll make sure they don't let the binders slip, or let anything stand in their way.

This boot-camp approach, applied to behavior and academics, is part of what sets KIPP apart, and part of the success that has put the organization in the national spotlight, held up by supporters as a prime example of the potential of charter schools.

Levin, a co-founder of KIPP, started this school in 1995 in a tough South Bronx neighborhood with a reputation for poverty, drugs and crime. For the past six years, KIPP was the highest-scoring middle school in the entire Bronx in reading and math, and last year among the top 10 percent in New York City. In contrast, the middle school that operates in the same building as KIPP has test scores that rank among the area's lowest.

KIPP plans to submit an application in the next few weeks to open one of Washington state's first charter schools.

It has talked with the Federal Way School District, and is looking at other districts, too, including Seattle, although the school board there has expressed strong opposition to charter schools. (KIPP has some noncharter schools in its network, though spokesman Steve Mancini says it prefers the flexibility and freedom charter schools offer.)

Those plans may end up on hold if charter-school foes submit enough signatures by Wednesday to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters to repeal the charter-school law.

KIPP, however, says it can be patient.

"Washington state is definitely on our priority list," Mancini says.

Inside a KIPP school

Here's a look at what KIPP does, and why.

Each day at the Bronx KIPP Academy starts early — 7:25 a.m., or 7 a.m. if students want breakfast.

Some walk from high-rise buildings across the street, or the nearby projects. Others travel by subway or car. Under New York charter-school laws, KIPP chooses its students by lottery, with preference to Bronx residents. When the school was new, nearly all of its students lived close by. As its reputation grew, more students applied from farther away.

The brick building also houses two noncharter public schools — an elementary school, and a separate middle school. KIPP students walk up four flights of stairs to a wing with 10 classrooms, where KIPP mottoes hang on every wall.

"Be Nice!" "Work Hard!" "Team Always Beats Individual." And, at the front of every class: "All of Us Will Learn."

In one room, fifth-graders study vocabulary using hand motions. When they say "quiver," they shake their hands and heads. When they say "fury," they shake a fist. Hand motions, as well as chants, are a common feature of the KIPP curriculum, because they help students remember and make learning fun.

Next door, seventh-graders discuss the novel "Lord of the Flies," and how the characters develop new identities in their island society.

"This is what you'll have to do in high school," their teacher tells them, acknowledging it's a challenge. "Don't be daunted. This is something you can do."

Academic excellence receives daily, public praise. When Mitch Brenner hands back tests in a seventh-grade social-studies class, for example, students congratulate high scorers with a loud, single clap as Brenner reads their names.

Every class is a mix of instruction in academics and character, with the goal of college always in the air.

The students are referred to by the year they'll graduate, so the fifth-graders are the Class of 2011. Banners from colleges that former KIPPsters attend are displayed front and center in the main hall.

The school's messages get reinforced so often that at times it feels like indoctrination, and it is. Staff members don't want students just to follow the rules; they want them to agree with the rules, and to see that the path to a good life is forged through hard work, respect, teamwork and good manners.

The behavior expectations are strict and strictly enforced — in class, at lunch, everywhere.

Students who talk out of turn or fail to line up straight get assigned to "administrative punishment," or A.P., which means staying an extra hour after school and spending lunch at the A.P. table, looking straight ahead, not allowed to talk.

They can also lose points off a weekly "paycheck" that's used, along with academic performance, to determine whether students earn certain privileges.

On this day, most of the sixth- and eighth-graders are away on two of the school-sponsored, year-end trips — one of the biggest rewards for good performance. The sixth-graders are in California; the eighth-graders at Zion and Bryce national parks in Utah.

Twenty-three students, however, failed to earn the trip. At midmorning, all of the sixth-graders who stayed behind sit with Quinton Vance, the school's young and friendly but no-nonsense principal, who asks them to reflect on why they're there.

A few are defiant. It's just the way kids are, they say. They did what they did because they wanted to be independent.

Vance challenges them. What did they gain? Who did they hurt, besides themselves?

He asks them to write down ways that teachers can help them improve next year.

"The whole goal of KIPP is to help you guys avoid other people's mistakes," he tells them. "You have to have faith that what we're saying is right."

Longer school day

Strict discipline, however, is just one feature that makes KIPP different.

The school day is much longer than at most public schools. After 3:30 p.m., when most schools let out, all KIPP students and teachers stay for tutoring, orchestra, sports and other after-school clubs and activities.

Students go home at 5 p.m., with 1-1⁄2 to 2 hours of homework left to complete. Teachers leave, too, but must keep their school-issued cellphones close by so students can call if they have questions.

Shirley Bermudez-Lee says she usually gets at least four calls a night, and more when she has given a tricky homework assignment.

KIPP says its teachers work under the same union contract as other New York City teachers but get paid overtime for the extra hours they're at school — in the afternoon, a half-day every other Saturday, and the three weeks of summer school.

Teachers say it's hard not to let KIPP consume their lives, and some add it's probably not an accident that most of the teachers are young and don't have children.

But they love their jobs because they believe they're making a difference.

"We don't let anyone fall back. It just doesn't happen," teacher Sarah Powers says.

"This is the way teaching should be," says Brenner, the seventh-grade social-studies teacher, in his second year at KIPP.

Like other professionals doing important work, he says, KIPP teachers stay until the job is done.

KIPP offers many opportunities, such as the year-end trips, that students might not get at other schools. Every student learns to play a musical instrument and is a member of the school orchestra, which practices daily. They also get more attention from teachers.

Students mention all of those things, especially the teacher support, to explain why they applied to KIPP.

"If you call them late, they'll yell at you, but they'll still help you," says Clyde Owusu, a fifth-grader.

High demand

Nearly 300 students applied for 70 spots in next fall's fifth grade. Thirty-five of those seats went to siblings.

Pamela Norfleet's daughter ended up at the top of the waiting list. Norfleet arrived at the school in the afternoon to remind them she was praying for a spot because she's seen how KIPP transformed her niece into a highly dedicated student who starts her homework right after school, and reads books usually not assigned until high school.

KIPP officials acknowledge they don't have all the answers. After nine years, they're still making improvements. Last fall, a reading specialist was added at the Bronx school to help students who arrived with skills well below grade level and weren't catching up in classes, which average 31 students. The staff debates whether students with attention-deficit disorder should be held to the same sit-in-your-seat and don't-talk standards as other students. They worry about how to motivate students who often end up in administrative punishment.

Critics question whether KIPP skims the more-motivated parents and students from nearby public schools, making its job easier.

KIPP parents must sign an agreement to check homework, try to read to their child every night and limit the amount of television they watch. If they don't, the "Commitment to Excellence" says, the child can be expelled.

Vance, however, says KIPP expels students only for the same reasons as other schools: if they do something to endanger the safety of themselves or others.

After school ends, Vance turns to two students waiting to talk to him. He asks if they know KIPP students who run with gangs. They nod. He asks what they used to get in trouble for at their old school. They say fighting. Do they fight here? No.

Charter opponents also argue that although some charter schools do well, the majority don't do better than regular public schools. And some have failed.

While Vance and Levin hope others can learn from KIPP, they don't pass judgment on other schools.

"We just do what we do," Levin says.

In class with the fifth-graders in the afternoon heat, Levin asks them to tell him why they need to keep their eyes on who is speaking.

It keeps them out of trouble, one says.

Levin presses them to tell him why it is important to THEM, not others.

It helps them stay awake, one offers. Keeps them focused, says another.

"There you go," Levin says. "Now our brains are going."

It's all about choices, he tells them.

"Do you have to use drugs?" he asks a little later.

"No," they shout.

"Do you have to get pregnant?"


"Do you have to go to college?"

"Yes," most shout, because they know that's what KIPP expects. But the answer is no. It's a choice, too, Levin says, although it's one he hopes they'll make.

"Raise your hand if you're hot." All 69 hands go up.

"Raise your hand if you're tired." They all go up again.

"Raise your hand if you plan on quitting."

They know the right answer to this one, and all hands stay down.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

SIDEBAR ARTICLE #1: Charter-school facts

First charter school opened: 1992, in Minnesota

Number of charter schools this year: close to 3,000

What is a charter? Regulations vary from state to state, but generally they are semi-autonomous public schools that operate under a contract, or charter, with a sponsor such as a school district or university. In this state, sponsors must be a school district or the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Charter schools in this state must be run only by nonprofit organizations. They will receive state money on a per-student basis, just like other public schools.

Washington charter-school history: Voters rejected charter-school initiatives in 1996 and 2002. But supporters continued to work to get a law passed in Olympia, and succeeded in March. Charter opponents hope to submit enough signatures by Wednesday to put a measure on the November ballot that would ask voters to repeal the law. If they succeed, the law will be put on hold until the election. If they don't, it will go into effect Thursday, the first day charter-school applications can be submitted.

SIDEBAR ARTICLE #2: National facts about KIPP

Original KIPP schools: two, one in New York and one in Houston

KIPP schools now open: 31, in 13 states

Number expected to open this year: seven, including the first high school

Major donors: Donald and Doris Fisher, co-founders of the Gap, have given more than $25 million to help KIPP open schools. Their money pays for a yearlong training institute for educators selected to open the schools.

Source: KIPP Academy


Enrollment: 242 students in grades 5 through 8

Ethnic makeup: 54 percent Latino, 46 percent black

Average class size: 31

Per-pupil expenditure (projected for 2004-05): $9,614; 96 percent from federal/state sources, 4 percent from private sources

Average teacher salary: $45,000, not counting summer-school stipend and overtime

Test scores: More than 80 percent of students score at or above grade level in math, and 73 percent in reading, on the CTB

Source: KIPP Academy

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