Charter schools are in the news again, with the Obama administration's Race to the Top funds being tied in part to the level of support for these schools in states that apply. Of course, charter schools are not legal in Washington state, voters having three times rejected initiatives to establish them here — in 1996, 2000, and 2004.
Over the weekend I visited my daughter, who is development director for KIPP Bay Area Schools, and I went with her to a teacher recruitment event. The KIPP classes I had visited in the past and the values of these charter schools had impressed me, and I was curious to hear what principals of the seven Bay Area KIPP middle and high schools would say to teacher candidates.
KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) was founded in 1994 by two Teach for America teachers. These public charter schools serve primarily students in low-income families, many from inner-city neighborhoods. All KIPP students are “climbing the mountain to college,” so every incoming youngster knows his or her future college-graduation year (today's 5th-graders will tell you they're in the Class of 2021). Although nationally only one in five students from poor neighborhoods goes to college, the matriculation rate among KIPP alums is almost 80 percent. The KIPP ethic, not only for kids but for teachers, administrators, and parents, is “Work hard. Be nice." Two posters frequently seen in KIPP hallways say, “No shortcuts” and “No excuses.”
Here are highlights from a Q&A session between the KIPP principals and prospective teachers (panelists' answers are edited for brevity):
Q: What was your path to leadership of a KIPP school?
A: In high school I was told I was a wonderful writer. Almost every paper I wrote got an A, and then as a college freshman I was told I'd have to take remedial English. At the school I lead I want to make sure other students will not go through that experience. Suddenly you're in a place where nobody looks like you, and you're told you need skills work. At my school we don't just tell students they'll qualify for the best high schools and colleges. You can't just make big promises to kids. They still have lots of work to do to be prepared.
A: My path? Years ago my 2nd grader was coming home crying every day, so when the teacher couldn't tell me what was going on, I started volunteering in the class. I became a teacher's assistant, then a substitute teacher, and then taught math in San Jose, where I worked on a 4th grade team with Teach For America people. They told me, "Your classroom's like a KIPP classroom. You keep saying all students can learn, and college stuff is all over your walls." I thought, "Some schools out there think the way I do?"
So I applied to teach at KIPP Heartwood. After 12 interviews there I was thinking I might not be the person they wanted, but they were just making sure they were hiring the right one. I became a 5th-grade math teacher at Heartwood and brought 45 students from my San Jose school with me. My expectations of kids could be even higher because every teacher was on the same page.
Q: What do you want for all your students?
A: I want them to have options when they graduate. Whether they want to teach, be a lawyer, or build things, they should have what they need to do that. I tell my students this every day to motivate them: "I don't ever want people to tell you you can't do something because you don't have the skill set."
A: I used to say I want to get KIPP kids accepted into college. Now I'm 100% certain they will go to college. Now I want them 100% prepared to succeed there. Even in communities of kids without the barriers our kids have, success in college is shockingly low. We want, in a universe of opportunity, that when they get there, they have the skills they can use to succeed there. I want them to have the kind of critical thinking and problem-solving skills they can use in their job, in their community as good citizens, and in their family.
Q: What's different about teaching in a KIPP school?
A: Teaching at my old school in Phoenix I was on a strong grade-level team that met often to say, "What does this kid need?" But it wasn't true throughout the school. At KIPP, we all know a lot about what kids need because there's constant conversation among teachers about what's working and not working, whether with classes or with individual kids. And at my other school I couldn't eat lunch with faculty. They'd say things you don't want to hear: "In four years this kid will be in jail," or "That kid will never get math." Here, the conversation is, "This graphic organizer really worked for my kids," and the science teacher says "Great," and picks up the idea. It's a tremendous drive of everyone together wanting the same thing for our kids and believing in them and wanting them to be better and talking that way every day.
Q: Who is the ideal student for KIPP schools?
A: We're public schools, so we take all students. Our 5th graders come in reading on 2nd-grade level and doing 3rd-grade math, and by 8th they're doing better than peers at other schools. Our ideal students are those who need us, which can also mean the kid who comes in a grade level ahead. We also want to be neighborhood schools as much as possible.
Q: What are you looking for in teachers?
A: Teachers have to really believe that their kids can do the work if they work hard. If there's a doubt in you, they know that, and it comes out in class, and you excuse kids when they really can go farther. You need to have high expectations and be willing to call them on things, but you need to love kids like family. It's a corny phrase, but a KIPP teacher is a "warm demander."
A: I look for people who want to be a phenomenal teacher for every single kid. Our teachers need both to work with struggling kids and push the more successful.
A: In a high school, teachers have to have content expertise and passion about that content. We want passionate mathematicians, passionate biologists — people who can't wait to teach their subject. We want to know that your mission and passion, every fiber of your being, is focused on making sure each one of these kids has every opportunity when they graduate. Finally, teachers need to walk the talk. We expect both academic and character development in our kids, so teachers need to acknowledge when they make mistakes. They need to show kids how to fall down and get up again.
Q: Who chooses the curriculum?
A: Each school is different, but teachers at mine can do anything as long as it's standards-based and connects long-term. Some come in really knowing how to develop their own curriculum and others need more support. Curriculum is teacher-driven because we want our teachers to be passionate about what they're doing.