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.