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

Like any decent cult, KIPP has a founding myth, in this case codified in the book published earlier this year by Mathews. Its title is taken from the KIPP organization’s motto: Work Hard. Be Nice. How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.”

The promise of KIPP, the thing that makes it seem there must be at least a little pixie dust at work, is that throughout the organization’s growth, its schools have taken the same poor and unprepared students that most school districts woefully fail and lifted them from the lowest levels of competency and achievement to the highest. At its foundation, the stunningly radical educational approach KIPP takes is the injunction contained in the first part of its motto: Work Hard.

Students at KIPP schools — they call themselves Kippsters — are required to arrive at school at 7:30 a.m., and stay until 5 p.m. (3:30 on Fridays). Every other Saturday, there’s a half-day of school. A 14-day summer session is required of all students. KIPP administrators estimate that under this regime, the kids spend about 60 percent more time “on task” — that is, actually being taught. And what is taught is reading, writing, mathematics and critical thinking. In addition, it’s expected that teachers will assign two hours of homework each day. Though parents are strongly encouraged to help, KIPP just about mandates that students telephone their teachers in the evening with any homework questions; all teachers receive a school-issue cell phone and are on call until 9 p.m. every school night.

I spoke with one of KIPP Philadelphia’s success stories, a 15-year-old named Carley Burney-Heath who had just finished her freshman year at the very selective Westtown School, a boarding school in West Chester. In her time at KIPP, her school day began at five in the morning and ended after nine at night. “Homework first; happiness second,” she recalled. “One of the major differences between me and other kids around the neighborhood was they couldn’t quite comprehend why I was in school so long. And summer. And Saturday.”

At her new, fancy private boarding school, she said, “Academically, it’s harder. But because I’ve been at KIPP, it’s ultimately easier. I have skills from KIPP that helped me go through freshman year. It was a breeze.”

The first skill new Kippsters are drilled in is described by the acronym SLANT. Like more teaching time, it’s another jaw-dropping innovation that demands all students do the following in class:

Sit up straight.
Look and Listen.
Ask and Answer questions.
Nod your head.
Track the speaker with your eyes.