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

For her part, schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman has supported charter schools in general and KIPP in particular. But she has done it in rather bland bureaucrat-speak. “We look forward to working with KIPP,” Ackerman said in a prepared statement after the announcement of Mannella’s big grant to grow in Philadelphia, “to see how its commitment to expanding in Philadelphia can be aligned with our strategic plan’s emphasis on providing a range of quality school choices across our city.”

“There is nothing going on in this building that couldn’t be replicated,” Mannella says. “What we do is not proprietary. Nothing would make me happier than if the Philly school district copied us.”

THE LATE-SPRING LIGHT is fading by the time Shawna Wells finishes explaining the KIPP idea to the two 10-year-olds and their mother. She has brought a one-page contract with her. She reads her commitment aloud and signs it. She works with the boys to get through their section. Their mother reads her part.

KIPP skeptics say the school attracts children with parents who are more concerned and involved than the normal poor city family. I ask Mannella and Wells about that, and each insists that they recruit in public locations — often handing out leaflets at stores and churches — and accept anyone who applies, or run a lottery when there are more applicants than chairs. “If we’re skimming off the cream,” Mannella says, “we’re really not doing a very good job of it.”

Michael and Tariq certainly have a concerned mother. She looks over her part of the contract carefully and enthusiastically. “We make these commitments,” she reads aloud, “because we want to develop the character, knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in top-quality high schools, colleges and the competitive world beyond.” She smiles broadly at her boys and signs the paper.

“Congratulations!” Wells tells Michael and Tariq. “You’re Kippsters!” She pulls out a bright yellow KIPP t-shirt and her digital camera, and poses each boy, draping the shirt over his chest, then takes a picture.

“I’m going to show you this picture at your graduation from high school,” the teacher tells the boys. “I’m going to show it to you at your graduation from college. When you get married. You get the idea.”

Michael and Tariq hold the shirt in turn, their mother beaming nearby, and the sight of the boys’ excitement and pride at being part of a school is remarkable and kind of heartbreaking — heartbreaking because the mountain these kids must climb is so steep and menacing, and they seem so small and fragile.

When Bill Gates was giving his talk on improving education to a gathering of mostly well-to-do and well-educated people like himself, he dangled a statistic that hangs over children like Michael and Tariq. “If you’re low-income in the United States,” Gates said, “you have a higher chance of going to jail than you do of getting a four-year degree.” There are a few other odds against these two boys as they begin their climb that are particular to Philadelphia, like a public high-school graduation rate of less than 60 percent and an adult illiteracy problem that’s even worse.

I walk out of the house with Shawna Wells, and we stand on the wet West Philly street for a few minutes in a soft drizzle, chatting about the details of getting her new school started. I can’t stop thinking about the simple yet stunning promise she made to those two boys. It’s a promise that many more school leaders will have to make and fulfill — and soon — or the promise of all of us together will be lost.