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

“No other program has shown gains as great for as many poor children as KIPP,” says education columnist Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, who has written one book about KIPP and is working on another. Though it cost them and their families nothing except a lot more time and effort, and a willingness to buy into educational ideas so old-fashioned and commonsensical they seem wildly radical, these students starting summer vacation today might be walking out of the best school in Philadelphia.

“PEOPLE SAY WE’RE like a cult,” says Marc Mannella, an intense, athletic-looking 34-year-old who founded KIPP Philadelphia in 2003, served as its first principal, and is now its CEO. “But people say that about Disney, too.”

A week or so before promotion day, I spent a morning at KIPP with Mannella, trying to instantly develop a shorthand system so my notes could somehow keep up with his fast-paced stream of opinions, theories, statistics and jokes.

I arrived at the school just as the students were finishing breakfast and dispersing to their classrooms. From first appearances — the bright and clean walls and floors — and from my initial encounter with a polite and helpful young man who directed me to the principal’s office, I sensed something unique. When Bill Gates visited a KIPP school, he told a crowd during a speech not long ago, the dynamism in the classroom at first struck him as “very bizarre.” According to Gates, “The whole spirit and attitude in [KIPP] schools is very different than in the normal public school.”

Later, I asked a man whose business has taken him into a number of Philadelphia public schools and this KIPP school at Broad and Lehigh if there was a big difference. “Are you kidding?” he said. “The public schools are like prisons.”

When I finally found Mannella that morning, he seated me at a small round table in his office, which was crowded with sports paraphernalia. “Our kids come here knowing that it’s safe, warm and inviting — a clean, well-lighted place,” he said. “We can’t control what goes on out there, but in here, we can control it.” That said, Mannella added, “There’s no magic pixie dust at work here.”

The son of a biophysicist, Mannella studied biology and psychology at the University of Rochester, then signed up for a two-year stint with Teach for America, a very selective program that takes high-achieving graduates of good colleges, marches them through a short boot-camp in teaching techniques, then sends them to teach at schools in poor urban and rural districts.

Mannella ended up in West Baltimore, teaching seventh-grade science. “I got my butt handed to me,” he says. Still, teaching appealed to him. He moved to Philadelphia and got a job teaching at a charter school in Logan. Then he won a fellowship to be trained in school leadership and administration. It was sponsored by what was then a little-known charter-school organization with a funny acronym for a name. KIPP had been founded in the mid-’90s by two white-guy basketball buffs, like Mannella — Ivy League graduates and Teach for America alumni Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.

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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!