The KIPP King Collegiate High School Story
In this installment, we show you how one KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) high school prepares its students for the rigors of college by challenging and empowering them with critical thinking skills.
Educators at KIPP King Collegiate spare no effort in preparing their students to succeed in college.
Credit: Zachary Fink
A cool wind from the San Francisco Bay blows across a dilapidated sports field as students find their way to the portable classrooms that make up half their school. It doesn't look like a place where students and teachers would choose to spend their time long after the final bell rings.
But at KIPP King Collegiate High School, in San Lorenzo, California, that's exactly what happens almost every day. Both students and teachers arrive well before the first bell and routinely stay until 5:00 or even 6:00 in the evening.
What keeps them so engaged? Visit Jared Kushida's Global Politics War & Peace class and you will get a sense of the kind of rigorous, dynamic teacher/student interactions that keep this school humming all day. Today, Kushida and his students are discussing whether the United States is justified in extraditing criminals from other countries:
Kushida: How does sovereignty play into this? You were saying that if it's affecting us, then we should bring their criminals to trial. But Colombia is a sovereign nation. Can we try Colombia's criminals?
Student A: Not really because they're not our people. They should be tried in their own courts.
Student B: But if their own court is politically corrupt, doesn't the U.S. have a moral obligation to get involved?
Kushida: A moral obligation I would totally agree. But is that enough? The U.S. does not just make moral choices.
Student B: But if it affects us and our economy, if it's an economic and political threat . . .
Kushida: There could be some reasons for U.S. involvement, but my big stopping point is this: Can a nation declare another nation unworthy of trying its own criminals?
Thought-provoking questions like these are the bread and butter of learning at KIPP King Collegiate. Every day, in every class, teachers trust their students not only to wrestle with complex ideas but also to challenge their own and their peers' perspectives.
"Here at King, critical thinking wins the day," explains Principal Jason Singer. "Almost every bit of work we do here, in either a directly related or tangential way, is aimed at developing disciplined critical thought within our kids."
Singer describes critical thinking as the ability to simultaneously comprehend, analyze, and evaluate a line of reasoning, a concept, or a problem relative to one's own perspective and the perspective of others to arrive at deeper understanding. It's considered a vital 21st-century skill in a society where information and innovation abound and where the intellectual flexibility to consider ideas from multiple perspectives is fast becoming a requirement for success.
And though critical thinking may seem like a rather abstract concept to drive so much effort and dedication, it manifests itself in almost every aspect of the school, from academics to social dynamics to school culture and discipline. Teachers are committed to developing critical-thinking skills in their students, and the students respond to their teachers' entreaties with unusual focus and follow-through.
"The teachers' passion for teaching really affected me because they wanted me to succeed, and that made me want to change," says Bria Lemmons, a member of King's first class of graduating seniors. "It made me care more about my education. It made me care about them as people. It made want to go to college."
Why Critical Thinking?
King, a small public charter high school of 460 students (in the 2010-11 academic year) in grades 9-12, is part of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of schools. KIPP Is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-prep public schools that operates in underserved communities across the country. King shares the KIPP goal of preparing students for success in college and beyond. But at King, they believe that the most important skill that will lead to this success is critical thinking.
Most of the students at King will be the first in their family to go to college. While at King, students are surrounded by others from similar backgrounds. Nationwide, more than 85 percent of KIPP students are from families eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program; 95 percent are African American or Latino. However, when they get to college, most find themselves for the first time in an environment of predominantly white students from higher-income communities.
So the goal becomes doing as much as humanly possible to erase any doubt in the minds of students that they can succeed in college. The teachers at King are narrowly focused on arming their students with the skills they need to meet the particular challenges of higher education. From the moment one of their graduates steps onto a college campus, KIPP educators want her to feel confident that she belongs in that rigorous academic environment. Singer believes that the intellectual asset that is leveraged most on college campuses is critical thinking. By teaching these skills at King, he says, "we've given them what they need to persist through college." When they emerge to take their places in the workplace, degrees in hand, "that is the moment when we close the achievement gap," Singer adds.
The hallmark and foundation of critical thinking is Socratic dialogue, a process in which students engage in dynamic discussions, focused on the goal of reaching deeper meaning by questioning assumptions.
Most students, when they start out at King, have had little to no training in critical thinking. All students are required to take a course called Speech & Composition, taught by English teacher Katie Kirkpatrick. A once-reserved student herself, Kirkpatrick strives to provide her students with the basic tools to join the conversation and empower their participation in the classroom.
Whether it's providing "sentence starters" to help students enter a discussion or directing them to shadow and assess each other in Socratic discussions, Kirkpatrick's course is carefully constructed to walk her pupils through the process of evaluating, building, and defending an argument. Each unit is based on an essential question such as, "Is poverty the responsibility of the individual or the result of outside factors?" The students' work is to unpack the implications and research a response, then develop a stance and defend their point of view. They are then required to present their arguments in essays, speeches, and Socratic discussions throughout the year.
The critical-thinking thread carries right through to the math and science classes as well. In Haoyu Chen's AP physics class, students use the same deconstruction skills to break down free-response questions, examine the information, and then synthesize it to create diagrams and experiments. Chen explains that the critical-analysis techniques they learn in Kirkpatrick's Speech & Composition class are essential in physics. "When they see a physics problem, they don't just see a lot of words and numbers but are able to take the math out of the words," she explains. "Those critical-thinking skills are carried over from humanities."
And although teachers at King must be good critical thinkers themselves, they don't always know how to teach critical thinking to others. So Kirkpatrick and Singer also train their staff in professional-development sessions during which teachers get the tools and techniques that help them to ask provocative questions and elicit them from students, conduct Socratic seminars, assess critical-thinking skills, and more. (Watch a video of their professional-development session and learn strategies from Kirkpatrick.)
It's not just in the classroom that critical thinking shapes the life at King. It also greatly impacts the school's culture as well. The maturity of thought the students develop, the perspective to think beyond themselves, and the ability to critically evaluate their decisions create an environment in which there are strong relationships between teachers and students as well as personal accountability.
When it comes to discipline, there is a firm emphasis on helping students understand how to make good decisions. When students make poor decisions, staff work with them to examine what thought process might have led to the poor decision and what impact that decision had on the whole community. Not only is there a proportionate disciplinary action taken, but there is also a system of restorative justice whereby the student must give back to the school as part of her remission.
That focus on the community, combined with the shared commitment to the students' education, creates a culture of genuine caring. It's the kind of support that drew Gabby Ballesteros back to King after leaving at the beginning of her junior year. "It's a struggle. It's hard," she explains. She thought she wanted something different, so she moved to San Diego. "But I realized after I left that this school was the best thing that could happen to me."
Now she is set on being the first in her family to go to college and wants to become a teacher like those she has had at King. "Just looking at my teachers makes me happy. It lights up my heart to see how much they do for us, and I want to do the same, to help people that are like me."
Years of college and teacher training lie between Gabby and her goal. Statistics show that many kids from her background won't get there. But the administrators, faculty, and students at KIPP King Collegiate are betting with their minds, their hearts, and their deepest commitment that she will.