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Week of 5.1.09

Book Excerpt: Work Hard. Be Nice.
By Jay Mathews

Author Jay Mathews tells the story of two young men who founded KIPP, a nationwide network of public charter schools.


Book Cover: 'Work Hard. Be Nice.' Many people in the United States believe that low-income children can no more be expected to do well in school than ballerinas can be counted on to excel in football. Inner-city and rural children raised by parents who themselves struggled in school are thought to be largely doomed to low grades, poor test scores, menial jobs, and hard lives. These assumptions explain in part why public schools in impoverished neighborhoods rarely provide the skilled teachers, extra learning time, and encouragement given to children in the wealthiest suburbs. Educators who do not think their students are very capable are less likely to arrange challenging lessons and longer school days.

This is the great shock of the story of Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Before either had reached his twenty-sixth birthday, their Knowledge Is Power Program revealed that many of these low-income students could achieve just as much as affluent suburban kids if given enthusiastic and focused teachers who believed in them and had enough time to teach them. They recruited and trained young principals like themselves who proved the skeptics wrong in cities and towns across the country.

About 80 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families. About 95 percent are black or Hispanic. The fourteen hundred students at twenty-eight KIPP schools in twenty-two cities who have completed three years of KIPP's four-year middle school program have gone on average from the 34th percentile at beginning of fifth grade to the 58th percentile at the end of seventh grade in reading and from the 44th percentile to the 83rd percentile in math. Gains that great for that many low-income children in one program have never happened before.

Feinberg and Levin and the hundreds of educators they have enlisted in this effort still have to demonstrate that their progress can be sustained. But no other inner-city educational initiative has gotten this far. KIPP now has sixty-six schools in nineteen states and the District of Columbia, including schools in nine of the ten largest U.S. cities. It plans to serve twenty-four thousand students in one hundred schools by 2011. KIPP teachers are paid extra for the more-than-nine-hour school days, the required four-hour every-other-Saturday sessions, and the three-week summer schools, but they know how much easier their working lives would be if they chose jobs in regular schools. Their enthusiasm for hard work in the classroom springs from the impact they are having, like nothing they have seen in many regular urban or rural public schools.

Some of these teachers joke that KIPP has all the best qualities of a cult, without the dues or the weird robes. They wonder among themselves how long they will stay and what direction KIPP's growth will take. No other program has sparked so much debate over what ought to and can be done for children stuck at the bottom of our public education system, the prime civil rights issue of this era, and this debate has for the first time become a positive discussion. How much further can these kids go?

Levin and Feinberg learned to teach from two classroom veterans whose unusual techniques and high standards led some colleagues to resent them, but who seemed to their two apprentices to be the answer to their prayers. The two veterans, Harriett Ball and Rafe Esquith, wondered if Feinberg and Levin could survive the pounding that was in store for them. They warned the young teachers that they were going to encounter many reversals and much discouragement. Levin and Feinberg proved to be just as aggressive and annoying as Ball and Esquith had hoped, sparking several clashes with educational authorities and cementing their reputations both as troublemakers and as educators whom parents and students could trust.

KIPP teachers these days live by results; they are devoted to seeing what helps disadvantaged children achieve and to passing on to other teachers what they have discovered. Like their heroes Levin and Feinberg, they have found that through hard work, fun, and teamwork, their students can earn for themselves choices in life that many people thought they never have. But in the beginning, few people had great hopes for those children. Or their two young teachers.

Copyright © 2009 by Jay Mathews. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 
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