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

Evans sprawled in a chair and talked about KIPP for five minutes or so, and in that time he used the word “love” a half-dozen times. “They really love these kids here,” he said at one point, “and they’ll do anything they have to do to help them succeed.”

Later, I talked with an open-faced and sweet-tempered sixth-grader named Marquise, who told me, “At my other school, they didn’t care. At KIPP, they love you and care about you. Back at my old school, the teachers didn’t trust anybody. Here, they actually trust us with their phone number. It says a lot.”

“DO YOU KNOW what the year 2017 is?” asks the principal.

Two 10-year-old boys give her quizzical looks. One scans the ceiling as if the answer might be hidden there.

“If you come to KIPP,” says the principal, a self-assured, stylish and no-nonsense 27-year-old named Shawna Wells, “in the year 2017, you will go to college.”

It’s a rainy June evening, and Wells has driven out to Southwest Philly and parked her shiny little Mercedes sedan on a street lined with very modest two-story homes fronted by tumble-down porches. The street is pocked with empty lots, and a number of houses are boarded up. Wells is here to recruit students for her new KIPP school.

Wells, a Feasterville native, studied English at the University of Vermont. She joined Mannella’s team as a teacher, has served as KIPP’s local director of development, and this fall will be principal of KIPP’s new West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, which she’ll run out of classrooms leased from the school district at 59th and Baltimore.

The home she enters tonight to visit boys I’ll call Michael and Tariq displays signs of intractable poverty — threadbare chairs and couches, a carpet stained beyond hope, ceilings with gaping holes, working appliances propped on top of broken appliances. The living room has been made neat for her visit, but when Wells insists on sitting at the dining room table, the two boys and their mother scramble to clear off empty beer bottles and leftover food.

“You’re going to hear me say this over and over,” Wells says after everyone is seated. “Work Hard. Be Nice. There are no excuses. There are no shortcuts. We work hard, and we’re going to college. But we know we have a mountain to climb if we’re going to get there.” Few parents of KIPP students have attended, let alone graduated from, college, so the schools immerse their students in symbols of universities, from pennants festooning the halls to each homeroom named after its resident teacher’s alma mater.