Over time, Dave and I became better teachers and our
students began to experience success. Once they left our class, though, the
students struggled through a bewildering and under-resourced school system that
just couldn't meet their needs.
During our second year of teaching, Dave and I came up with
an idea to create a fifth-grade program called the Knowledge Is Power Program,
or KIPP. Fifth-graders would get prepared for college by attending school from
7:30 am to 5:00 pm, half days on Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer.
Teachers would be available for homework help after school hours, while setting
high expectations in the classroom. Parents, students, and teachers would all
sign a pledge, called the Commitment to Excellence, which outlined the hard
work needed for our students to reach their potential.
But when we tried to convince the Houston Independent School
District to let us try our idea, we ran into the brick wall of a bureaucracy
that had absolutely no idea what to do with us. In our initial meeting, we
pledged to foster student learning gains using the existing curriculum. The
conversation went something like this:
"So what new curriculum will you be using?"
"There isn't going to be a new curriculum. We're just
making sure the kids are learning the existing curriculum."
"Well, if there is no new curriculum, then how is this
"Well, we'll have kids come to school at 7:30 am."
"Okay, we understand. This is a before-school
"No, we'll have them stay until 5 pm."
"Oh...so it's an after-school program."
We were talking in circles. It wasn't the administrators'
fault; they were stuck within the confines of a rigid framework, and our idea
didn't fit in the narrow parameters of that system.
In the end, we got lucky. Some members of the Houston
Independent School District were intrigued and believed enough to bend the
rules and give us a space to start KIPP if we could recruit enough kids. In the
summer of 1994, we started KIPP at Garcia Elementary School with 48 fifth
graders. By the end of the school year, we went from having half our students
scoring proficient in reading to over 90 percent scoring proficient on the same
In subsequent years, Dave and I began to hire more teachers
and extend KIPP one grade at a time. We soon realized that if our educators
were really going to have the freedom to adopt the practices we thought were
essential to school success, like an extended school day and year, we would do
better with a charter-school model. KIPP has since expanded from two schools in
2000 to 109 public schools today serving 33,000 students -- 85 percent of who are
from low income-families.
The central tenet of charter schools is freedom in exchange
for accountability. At KIPP, one of our founding principles is "Power to
Lead" -- giving principals the autonomy to adapt and innovate within their
own schools. They are also able to recruit and hire teachers on their own, and
to give those teachers the leeway to teach the way they see fit. In exchange,
they have to demonstrate that their approach is producing results for
students -- through a combination of standards-based testing and other
measures -- or risk having their charter revoked.