This is one educational book readers are likely not to find boring, and residents in Austin will be very familiar with the book’s inspiring, real-life story.
Last Friday, KIPP Ascend Charter School welcomed Jay Mathews, a reporter for the New York Times and author of Work Hard, Be Nice, a new book about the Knowledge Is Power Program and its founders, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. Today, KIPP has more than 60 schools nationwide, including KIPP Ascend, 715 S. Kildare, on the West Side.
Jim O’Connor has been the school’s leader (KIPP doesn’t call their school administrators principals) since it opened its doors in 2003. KIPP Ascend, like its sister schools, ranks high on standardized tests and graduates its students to high schools, and from there on to college.
Mathews’ book recently hit news stands and landed on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list. He chronicles KIPP’s story and that of its founders, Feinberg, who grew up in Oak Park, and Levin. The two started their first school in 1994 in Houston, and a year later opened a second school in New York City. Because of their success, Donald and Doris Fisher, founders of The Gap clothing stores, approached the two, offering to help create additional schools across the country. The couple created the KIPP Foundation, which trains school leaders and monitors the schools.
Mathews is on a promotional tour for the book. He toured KIPP Ascend before talking with Austin Weekly News. Mathews starting working on the book in 2003 and it took about three years to write it.
What made you want to write about KIPP’s founders?
I’ve been writing about schools for 27 years. It started when I stumbled across a high school in Los Angeles – Garfield High, which was exploding with advance-placement courses in a school where there shouldn’t have been any. It was 85 percent low-income. All the parents were sixth-grade dropouts; the kind of place most Americans believe kids just can’t learn at an AP level. I wrote a book about them; that they are the great secret of American society. That the kids in the inner city were just as smart as the kids in the suburbs. But nobody in the inner city schools had given them the time and encouragement they needed to learn. That is all they needed. I wrote a book about them and a couple of books about other things, and I finally became a full-time education reporter for the Washington Post and stumbled across the first KIPP school in D.C., which was doing the same thing that school in L.A. was doing. They understood that kids from the poorest part of D.C. were just as smart as the kids in the suburbs; all they needed was extra time and encouragement to learn. And they were giving them the KIPP system – longer school days and great teaching. They told me about these two teacher founders, Mike and Dave.
Why do you think KIPP’s approach to education isn’t used as a model for all public schools?
Well, because most Americans, and a lot of teachers, don’t believe that kids from certain backgrounds can learn at that level. The first line in the book explains that is our problem, and the more KIPP schools we have showing the results that these kids are just as smart as suburban kids, the more people will adopt this approach.
What future do you see for the KIPP schools?
Limitless. I think there are two things happening. KIPP schools are going to change regular schools by growing in all these communities. And then we got people who think like KIPP teachers; who are taking over school districts. So we have Michelle Reed in D.C., who is essentially KIPP-terizing the whole school district. We got the KIPP leader that started a KIPP school in Tulsa. He has now taken a job as a Deputy Superintendent in Tulsa. He is going to take over that district at some time. Eventually, from top to bottom, the philosophy of KIPP – more time and encouragement for learning – is going to take over.
In your opinion, do you think there are children who cannot be taught because of their environment?
Absolutely not; it’s ridiculous. It is beyond any kind of understanding of the real world to think that happens. Some children won’t become Nobel Prize winners, but every human being has a God-given talent to be a much better learner if they really work at it. We got all kinds of stories of kids severely disable, with even mental handicaps, who have gotten better by having great teachers. It’s all about great teaching.
Schools in Chicago urban communities have many problems. Do you think Chicago would benefit if there were more KIPP schools?
Absolutely. Chicago’s got a lot of problems. They try to do it from the top down and often that hasn’t worked. They really need to convince people that what they have to do is unleash the power of great teachers. Give great teachers a chance to run their own shows, as KIPP schools do, and do things that make sense to them. The only limit being: if they are not showing a gain in achievement, then they’ve got to do something different. That is the way to break it up, and it has to be, I think, not so much top down; not so much what the city is doing or what the school district is doing, but what the teachers are doing. You have to free up the great teachers.
Mathews plans to do a follow up book about KIPP in five years to see how its grown, but this time, he’ll focus on the founders’ kids-their school leaders, like O’Connor, and their work at the individual schools.
“That is the great story for next time,” Mathews said.