Knowledge is Power Program: A Strong Model for Public Schools
As many traditional public schools struggle to close the achievement gap, Knowledge is Power Program schools seem to have the right formula for helping poverty-stricken and minority students achieve success. In this article, we examine how KIPP schools are making their students’ futures much brighter.
Knowledge is power. It is a phrase that countless schoolchildren have heard from the lips of countless teachers through the years. While for some it’s just meaningless words, for others it is a mantra by which they approach education. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) takes that mantra to heart, and after 20 years, has changed the manner in which public school children are taught.
KIPP began as the brainchild of two Teach for America workers in 1994. After recognizing that their low-income students were not receiving the support they needed in order to achieve success in school, and later in life, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg devised a new way to teach middle school students. After convincing the Houston Independent School District to green light their experimental program, Levin and Feinberg built a curriculum that harnessed the power of values held dear by their community – hard work, accountability, high expectations, and a sense of togetherness. From their initial class of 47 students, KIPP has since grown into a network of 162 schools across the nation.
KIPP In a Nutshell
KIPP was formed in order to bring opportunity to underserved populations through education. KIPP schools, which are public charter schools, are founded on the belief that any child – regardless of his or her socioeconomic status, racial heritage, or other demographic factors – can and will learn if given the appropriate opportunity. And with that opportunity, poverty-stricken children can develop the knowledge and skills they need to graduate from high school, go to college, and free themselves from the cycle of poverty that so often entrenches urban and minority families.
KIPP schools are founded on five essential principles that guide and direct the daily functioning of each student and staff member:
- High Expectations – Students are held to a high academic and behavioral standard. There are no excuses based on a child’s background, no free passes. A wide variety of consequences and rewards, reinforced both in school and at home, strengthen the culture of achievement. Teachers and parents hold themselves to higher standards as well in order to model that behavior.
- Additional Classroom Time – KIPP schools operate on a longer school day, week, and year to ensure children have the time on task required to develop the academic and life skills that will lead them to success. KIPP students are engaged in learning 60 percent more time than the average American public school student.
- Choice – Students and parents choose to join KIPP schools – no one is forced to attend. Through their commitment to education, students are able to achieve success.
- Results – KIPP schools demand excellent performance by their students on objective measures such as standardized tests. Their academic performance is expected to be commensurate with the requirements of the nation’s best high schools and colleges.
- Leadership – KIPP principals have the power to make budget and personnel decisions in order to deliver the highest quality education possible.
By adhering to the five pillars, KIPP schools have managed to do something that mainstream public schools struggle to do: Demonstrate achievement with poor and minority students. According to KIPP, of their 58,000 students in 20 states and Washington, D.C., nearly 90 percent are poverty-stricken and qualify for the free and reduced lunch program. What’s more, 95 percent are Latino of African-American. Many more students come to KIPP having a poor academic record or conduct issues at their prior school, and a growing number of students speak English as a second language.
Despite the economic and social disadvantages the majority of KIPP’s students live with each day, they are showing marked improvement in their academic achievement. Over 93 percent of students who attend a KIPP middle school graduate from high school. Compare that to a national graduation rate of 81 percent. The disparity is even more staggering when graduation rates are examined based on ethnicity. Just 76 percent of Latino students and 66 percent of African-American students graduate from high school nationwide.
Performance on standardized measures of reading and math skills support the KIPP model. In 2009, 57 percent of children entering the fifth grade in KIPP schools had below grade level reading abilities. Even more – 67 percent – showed below grade level abilities in math. However, by their eighth grade year, these students were able to turn things around: 59 percent were above grade level in reading and 65 percent were above grade level in math. Additionally, 93 percent of KIPP students outperform their peers at other local public schools on measures of reading and 89 percent do so in math. In fact, a study by Mathematica shows that after three years at KIPP, students have 11 more months of math knowledge than their peers. KIPP schools have demonstrated an exceptional retention rate as well. Nearly 90 percent of students come back year after year or complete the highest grade level at their school.
How Success is Achieved
The successes of KIPP students can be attributed to a number of factors. First, the belief that every student can succeed is paramount. These are not nonchalant words being thrown about by teachers; it is a full-blown belief system into which all stakeholders – teachers, students, and parents – have bought in. Second, students have the unwavering support of their families. Parents are highly involved in the educational process at KIPP schools, something that regular public schools have struggled to maintain. Teachers and parents talk often in order to keep one another abreast of each child’s progress.
A third key to KIPP’s success is its focus on college readiness. Children in KIPP schools aren’t just going through the motions of learning. Rather, they are acquiring important skills for future success and they know it. Connections are made between what they learn today in the classroom and how that learning applies to college and to real life. This academic readiness begins their first day of kindergarten and extends through to the twelfth grade.
Lastly, KIPP students acquire character traits that make their success more likely. They learn that making mistakes is okay and in so doing, learn valuable lessons in resiliency. Students learn social intelligence through extensive cooperative learning opportunities that foster the development of effective communication skills, self-control, self-advocacy, and empathy. They are taught that optimism should never diminish no matter what obstacles they face, and that hard work will very often make the impossible possible. Students at KIPP schools often hear the words, “Work hard. Be nice.” While that’s a good motto, for them, it is far more than that. It is the means by which they will lift themselves out of poverty and go on to do great things.
The legacy thus far for KIPP schools is that they work. One need only examine the college graduation rate of KIPP alumni, which stands at 40 percent. While this does not meet KIPP’s lofty goal of a 75 percent college graduation rate, it would be a challenge to find another nationwide educational system that produces that kind of results for students who are impoverished and disenfranchised, especially in light of the fact that only 8 percent of low-income students nationwide earn a bachelor’s degree.
Detractors Question KIPP’s Rigidity
The KIPP system is not without it’s detractors. Some say it doesn’t account for other critical issues facing poor, urban youth, such as gang violence, housing needs, and health care. Still others lament that the calendar adopted by KIPP schools (students usually attend from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm each weekday, every other Saturday, and for three weeks in the summer) pushes out many needy families who cannot accommodate such a time-intensive schedule. Critics also maintain that KIPP schools weed out low achievers with their lofty expectations for all.
However, any school that produces results like those that KIPP has achieved must be doing something correctly. In an era in which much scrutiny is placed on charter and magnet schools, private schools, and traditional public schools to achieve, it would behoove personnel from other schools to see how KIPP has done things the right way: Parent involvement, connections between learning and real life, and a culture of pride, hard work, and being nice. When paired with dedicated teachers, fun classroom experiences, and more time on task, how can kids not succeed?
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