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?