When the Edutopia coverage team arrived at the campus of KIPP King Collegiate High School in San Lorenzo, California, I was carrying some extra baggage. About five years ago, I had viewed televised reports about the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools in Houston and New York City, showing sixth, seventh and eighth graders, mostly African American and Latino, dressed in school uniforms and expressing their devotion to KIPP and its intensive approach to learning.
Footage of KIPP kids chanting their lessons in unison and drumming on their desks struck me as kind of Orwellian. And when a KIPP cofounder spoke of his students having been "kippnotized," alluding to their conversion to the rigors of the school, the word play didn't seem funny.
A Scalable KIPP Solution?
Fast-forward to the present. KIPP has become one of the fastest growing and best-known public charter school networks in the country. Since 2001, they have started more public charter schools across the United States than any other nonprofit in the last decade. They have launched many under-served middle schoolers on the path to college and career, and KIPP's positive, strategic impact on the lives of its students is hard to argue with. And with the KIPP network now grown to 109 schools, some even argue that it is emerging as the viable, scalable alternative to traditional public schooling in economically deprived neighborhoods.
Wow. Really? Just 109 schools can foretell a solution for the tens of thousands of public schools we will need to give America's poorer kids a fair shake? Seems like a stretch. But as I shook hands with Jason Singer, principal of KIPP King Collegiate, I vowed to drop my bags at the curb, and simply look for answers.
To be clear, and to be fair, the focus of our story is not the KIPP network. It is about San Lorenzo's KIPP King Collegiate (KKC), and its teachers, students, and staff. We wanted to find out what KKC is doing to enhance the learning process and to help kids -- who might otherwise never have the opportunity -- go on to college and into the economic mainstream.
Lessons from One KIPP School
Here's what we learned. First, from the teachers: They are on a mission to deliver their students to college armed with the tools it takes to succeed. No reasonable effort is spared and no hours are too long to achieve this transformative result.
Students at KIPP King Collegiate High School must use and hone their critical-thinking skills in every class and at all grade levels.
Credit: Zachary Fink
Second, we learned from the students -- in spontaneous, unrehearsed conversations -- that yes, devotion to academics is rigorous and the hours spent studying are long, "way longer," as one boy explained, than at other schools in the San Lorenzo Unified School District. Discipline is strict, and "sometimes too much," according to a girl who just finished her freshman year. Personally, I have seen far stricter consequences for infractions at other schools. We saw no chants or drumming, which doesn't mean it doesn't happen -- or, of course, that it's necessarily a bad thing.
Instead, we discovered the conceptual opposite of group chanting: students engaged in the highly individualized practice of learning through "critical thinking." We saw students sift through diverse arguments and make informed choices between multiple options in search of a best path forward. We saw this in academics, in discipline, and in building school culture. KIPP Principal Singer and his team believe that the ability to think critically is the single most effective tool KKC can pass along to it students, and that nothing will serve them better in college.
A Friendly Challenge for KIPP
Check out our coverage, and see what you think. You may discover some approaches to learning and character development worth emulating in your own school -- or at home with your own kids.
As to my prior-perceptions-of-KIPP baggage, I have unpacked and put away most but not all of it. Orwellian? No, not even close. More age of Socrates than "Animal Farm."
KIPP as the scalable, closest thing to a silver bullet for what ails education in our poor communities? Again, no. Not with the diverse realities of special-needs students, ELL students, and rural populations, and the vastly different per pupil resources available state to state. And not so long as wealthy individuals and corporations are reluctant to help resource traditional public schools in the same way many have done for KIPP.
But I do believe there is something positive every high school can take from KIPP King Collegiate to enhance learning among its students. And if I were to extend a friendly challenge to the KIPP network, it would be to redouble its efforts to reach out to colleagues in traditional public schools to share best practices, reciprocally. Not an easy task in our current, far-too-polarized, charter-versus-traditional-public-school environment, but a challenge that ought never be let to fall by the wayside.