Why KIPP Charter Schools Are Obsessed With College

One hot summer day in 2001, Susan Schaeffler, a 30-year-old D.C. teacher, was in the basement of an Anacostia church, getting blisters assembling classroom furniture while explaining to me why her new public charter school would be different from other ill-fated educational experiments. She said the first class of students recruited for the KIPP DC: KEY Academy middle school would not be called fifth graders, but the class of 2009. Her father, helping with the furniture, said: "Oh, I get it. That's the year they will graduate from high school." "No, Dad," Schaeffler said, giving him a stern look. "That's the year they are going to college."

Nearly eight years later, Schaeffler's school for impoverished children has the highest test scores in the city. Fifty-eight of the first 62 students who completed KIPP will be going, as she promised, to college. Like other students in the class of 2009, Bernard Palmer says that emphasis on college, college, college seemed goofy to 10-year-olds who rarely heard the word at home. But Palmer, raised by his housecleaner aunt, is about to graduate from St. Albans, a selective high school more associated with lawyers' kids. He has a good chance at his first-choice college, Duke. "KIPP taught us to work hard, and everything was possible," he said.

The most-studied public-charter network in the country, KIPP (for Knowledge Is Power Program) has nine-hour days, required summer and Saturday sessions, music, sports, weeklong field trips, discipline and energetic teaching. But its focus on college for every child, no matter how underachieving, is probably its most noticeable feature, and the most difficult for Americans to understand. There are 66 KIPP schools in 19 states and D.C., a total of 17,000 students—81 percent low-income, 60 percent African-American and 35 percent Hispanic. It has the greatest test-score gains of any public-school network. Since most KIPP schools are for fifth to eighth graders, KIPP keeps track of its graduates in high school, too. Of the 688 students who have completed KIPP eighth grade so far, 576 have gone to college, an 84 percent matriculation rate.

Since I met Schaeffler, and then began writing a book about KIPP cofounders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, I often hear people say of the KIPP fixation: "College is not for everyone, you know." They have a point. But I notice that most of the people who say this are middle-class Americans who would bridle if anyone suggested their own children would be better off in trade school.

Sending your kid to college is the nation's great unifying aspiration. It increases life's choices and doubles average incomes. But for every 100 black and Hispanic ninth graders, fewer than 20 earn a college degree—a problem that is only going to loom larger as their share of the population grows. KIPP, and a few charter groups like it, aim to change that. They've discovered college can have the same galvanizing effect in Houston's heavily Hispanic Gulfton neighborhood, where Feinberg found his first KIPP students, and the South Bronx, where Levin found his, as it has in other fashionable suburbs.

The personal touch is paramount. Inner-city students won't thrive unless teachers show they care. KIPP students who don't pay attention or misbehave are often temporarily barred from talking to other students. They must talk to teachers instead. After many conversations about what such behavior is doing to their college chances, they realize these people will not leave them alone until they shape up.

Strong teacher-student relationships drive the KIPP college effort, too. One of Levin's former students, a senior at the private high school Saint Mark's, called him for help when she was arrested for shoplifting, and was astonished to see his stern face at her door the next morning, finding a lawyer, arranging transfer to another school and lecturing her on bad choices. When the unmarried status of one Houston student's parents hurt her immigration and financial situation as she applied to college, Feinberg persuaded the couple to wed.

Dan Castillo, whose family still lives in a Bronx public-housing project, remembers KIPP classes full of collegiate insignia. University banners covered the walls. Homerooms were named after KIPP teachers' colleges, so Castillo was in the University of Chicago in fifth grade, the Brown group in sixth grade. He went to a private high school, Northfield Mount Hermon, where the workload was a shock. "But I learned at KIPP I had to make sacrifices, like the fact that I had been going to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. since the fifth grade," he said. He will graduate from Colgate this spring with a joint major in economics and political science.

Not all KIPP graduates go to college, and not all stay, but the network is working on that. Every KIPP educator serves as a college counselor. Doric Gassaway, now in his high-school senior year at the Friendship Collegiate Academy in D.C., has gotten into some Maryland state colleges but dreams of Ivy League Columbia, with his former middle-school principal, Schaeffler, still cheering him on. "We are hoping he will be valedictorian this year," she said. She has him interning at the new KIPP primary school, and telling kindergartners they too will be going to college.

Join the Discussion