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

In his book, Jay Mathews reports that older people who visit KIPP schools often say they’re reminded of parochial-school culture in a bygone era, minus the nuns with rulers rapping knuckles.

Beyond the heavy instructional load and the strict discipline, the school ethos stresses personal responsibility. “You have to earn everything,” one student told me, “even your seat in class.” Fifth-graders begin KIPP sitting on the floor, and only when they can ace a quiz on the principles of SLANT are they allowed a seat at the table.

KIPP founders Feinberg and Levin did conjure up one magic trick: appealing to the budding consumer capitalist in all American kids by creating a monetary system based on KIPP dollars. Each child starts an account on the first day of school, and good behavior and academic achievement earn dollars that can be used at a school store. Students’ KIPP bank accounts help them qualify for elaborate yearly class trips that have become institutionalized throughout the KIPP system. Philadelphia fifth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and, among other things, recite Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech near the spot where it was originally delivered. Sixth-graders go hiking and camping in Utah’s Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. Seventh grade takes a tour of Southern cities significant in the civil rights movement. The eighth grade flies to Puerto Rico. The trips cost the students’ families $20 apiece. “It’s a way for us to extend the life experience beyond Broad and Lehigh,” says Marc Mannella.

These perks cost the school extra, of course. So do music and art instruction, an athletic program, and the extra salaries for teachers — 15 percent above the equivalent Philly teachers union scale — to compensate for the extra hours. In addition to state and federal funding, KIPP must find another $1,200 per student to meet its needs (though its total cost per student is still below that of the Philadelphia school district). That funding gap is filled by contributions from foundations, corporations and individuals. Most KIPP schools, or clusters of schools, have full-time fund-raising executives.

Not long before I met Mannella, he’d hooked a $4.6 million grant from the Charter School Growth Fund, a Colorado-based investment program. It will help fund his 10-year-plan to open nine more KIPP schools, including elementary and high schools, to form two clusters, one in North and one in West Philadelphia. If achieved as now conceived, the growth plan would give KIPP a total enrollment of about 4,400 students in 10 schools in Philadelphia.

All the quantifiable stuff — the test scores, school schedules, budgets — illustrates the seriousness with which KIPP takes the Work Hard part of its motto. Getting at the Be Nice part is much more difficult and slippery. We were talking about this when Mannella noticed a compact man with the look of a small but powerful wingback walking by his office, and jumped up to invite him in. Kaheem Evans lives in the neighborhood and has a daughter, a stepdaughter and a brother attending KIPP. He had worked for the school the previous year as a “character support specialist,” but there wasn’t enough money in the budget for the job this year, though Evans still hangs around the school and helps out when he can.