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 Jay Mathews’s fine book about the founding of KIPP, it’s striking how much of this educational idea — whether it qualifies as a cult or not — depended not on studies or curricula reviews or committee recommendations, but on two smart, ambitious and inordinately dedicated teachers who were willing to work their tails off. The rise of KIPP is an inspiring tale, but any peek into its future quickly forces a question: Is it truly possible to find enough teachers like that to replicate on a large scale?

To get some perspective after I first visited with Marc Mannella, I called an old friend who’d taught in a number of schools in the Philadelphia school district over a 30-year career. He’s very smart, a highly accomplished musician, and one of the most conscientious people I know. As I told him about the demands put on teachers by KIPP — the long days, the on-call evenings, the Saturdays, the mandatory summer school — he literally gasped. “Wow,” he said, “Wow! How long can people stay in a job like that?”

Mannella is enough of a CEO by now that he insists on labeling the issue a “challenge” rather than a problem. But he addresses it frankly. After KIPP opened in 2003, he admits, one of the four fifth-grade teachers quit during the first year, overwhelmed by the hours; another was let go. Their replacements didn’t return for a second year. Turnover among teachers in general is notoriously high, and according to KIPP’s national spokesman, Steve Mancini, KIPP’s seems higher because principals are given total control and there are only five schools with unions, so teachers who don’t fit the peculiar demands of KIPP’s philosophy can usually be removed at will. Mannella gave me figures that showed his overall teacher turnover rate since 2003 has been 27 percent, but it’s been improving steadily. In any case, KIPP has already started to address the issue by allowing job sharing and introducing other techniques to temper teacher burnout.

If you even dip your toe into the vast ocean of debate about why so many schools have failed so many of their students, particularly those in poor urban and rural areas, you realize there’s plenty of blame to go around. By now it’s commonplace to point to lazy, hidebound teachers and the unions that protect their short hours, long vacations and tenured incompetence. No doubt that theory has some validity, but as Mathews’s book on KIPP makes clear, it was two unionized public-school teachers who mentored and inspired Levin and Feinberg as they hatched the idea of KIPP.

So far, the Philadelphia teachers union has kept its distance from KIPP. “I sat next to [union president Jerry] Jordan at a conference,” Mannella reports, “and I believe he had no idea who I was.” (Jordan declined to comment on KIPP because the union doesn’t represent any teachers at the school.)