Best Schools 2009: Is This the Best School In Philadelphia?

Cynics say urban education is hopeless. With some old-fashioned ideas, North Philly’s KIPP School is proving them wrong

AS YOU MIGHT expect, the last day of classes before summer break at the unusual school tucked into a former fur vault at the corner of Broad and Lehigh wasn’t filled with a lot of formal education. The students, nearly 300 fifth-through-eighth-graders, gathered as usual a little after 7 a.m. to eat breakfast in the fourth-floor room where the walls are decorated with hand-painted inspirational sayings, from Thomas Edison on hard work to Oprah Winfrey on character.

Dressed in uniforms — khaki pants and bright red or blue polo shirts — most of the kids were from the neighborhood, and they reflected its demographics. All but a handful were African-American or Hispanic, and a large majority came from families so poor that they qualify for government-subsidized school meals.

After breakfast, the students trooped outside for a morning in a nearby park, a rare square block of grass and shade in this rather forlorn neighborhood that spreads in the shadow of the giant empty hulk that once housed the Botany 500 factory. In the park, the students jumped into games of kickball and ran obstacle courses. They signed each other’s yearbooks. Normal stuff.

It only became clear later that morning, as the students reassembled in the school cafeteria, that unlike so many schools run by the Philadelphia School District in poor neighborhoods, this wasn’t the average child-warehousing center. While a few students got to step forward and receive prizes for achievement in mathematics (a calculator), social studies (a globe) and science (a bubble-gum-making machine, as a joke about the school’s strict policy forbidding the substance), nearly every student received a special medal to hang around his or her neck, recognition for resilience and grit.

And the fact is, at this school, nearly all of the students are beating the substantial odds against them. Of the 77 eighth-graders who were moving on to high school, 100 percent had been accepted to college preparatory schools, including St. Joe’s Prep. Overwhelmingly, and throughout the four grade levels, the students’ scores on standardized tests met or exceeded those of their peers — not only at other inner-city public schools, but even when compared to the more posh enclaves of suburbia.

This school, known as KIPP (short for “Knowledge Is Power Program”), is deliberately placed in one of Philadelphia’s most hardscrabble neighborhoods, and accepts children on a come-one-come-all lottery system. Observed from any angle, it’s one of the true bright stars in an educational constellation unfortunately filled with dwarves and black holes. An independently run public charter school aligned with a much-lauded and fast-growing nonprofit network that this year will have 82 schools operating in 19 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP has enthusiastic fans ranging from new Education Secretary Arne Duncan to best-selling journalist-cum-management-guru Malcolm Gladwell to gazillionaire businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates. Could this kind of school be the way to give a substantial lift to unprepared, under-supported children who each year are thrown in human waves at overwhelmed public schools? Is KIPP a model for how to make Philadelphia’s public school system work again?

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  • James

    I have been to KIPP’s open house and can attest to the concentration the staff places on the students. This is not some feel good scenario. These people are really there and actually care about every single person. Shawna Wells and Marc Manella really impressed me and I was happy to read about Shawna’s promotion into the West Phila division. Way to go, KIPP!!

  • Stephen

    I had the privilege of working with Marc and his staff during the first few years. Many times I wished I could join their mission full time, but you need to see these guys work, I couldn’t keep up. They are tireless in their efforts and commitment to the students, the KIPPSTERS! Marc and his team simply have the right stuff and the students of Philadelphia are lucky to have someone like him and his team. Congratulations on your success and the future that KIPP delivers to the students of Philadelphia.

  • karen

    The average Phila. public school must educate everyone. All demographics including special needs populations take part in high stakes testing. It’s been said that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When will we stop the negative coverage of the Phila. School District?

  • Julius

    Karen makes a good point. The average Philadelphia Public school needs to educate every child! I would say that every charter school should as well and there are some that don’t. You’d be interested to find that their is a large percentage of students with special needs (including emotional, learning, psychological, and ELL)at KIPP Philadelphia. They do not “cream”. There is no magic pixie dust, just a hard-working, dedicated staff of teachers and learning support (special education)teachers who prove the inspirational power of malleable intelligence. You should come and visit to see for yourself. It is easy to visit KIPP Philly as there are students learning from 7:30-5 M-R, not to mention 7:30-2:30F and every other Saturday. Our mandatory summer school If you are a district teacher who finishes at 3, swing on by after! If you work a normal 9-5, swing on by before!

    I wouldn’t say KIPP is perfect, but they do educate all demographics!