Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Low-income students aim high at nontraditional school

A great article about KIPP Gaston College Prep and its new high school, Pride High, which are kicking butt in rural North Carolina...
Asheville Citizen-Times
December 27, 2005 6:00 am

GASTON — No one at Gaston College Prep talks about the day they’ll close the racial achievement gap. They did that the year the rural school opened in 2001.

Now they talk about the day when every kid will go to college from a student body that is predominantly African-American and mostly low-income. If they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t be breaking ground for a new high school.

Located just off Interstate 95 south of the Virginia line, the school sits in a part of the state where poverty rates are high and expectations are often low. But the school’s test scores are among the best in the state. Most of the 300 students at the middle school and fledgling high school are above grade level. Some have already posted SAT scores that meet college entrance requirements.

There is no secret to how they do it. They work hard. Students attend class each day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — and every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tutoring takes place at the end of each day. Summer includes a three-week session to prepare for the coming year.

Discipline is tight. Excuses aren’t accepted. High expectations include everyone. If children don’t understand a lesson, they try again — and again.

“You can get in trouble pretty quickly for poor behavior,” said ninth-grader Marco Squire. “But if you’re in trouble academically, they’ll work with you all day long.”

From the middle school’s name to the seemingly endless reminders about college, the mission of Gaston College Prep redefines the way students and teachers go about their daily tasks.

Few children who attend Gaston College Prep and Pride High come from well-educated families. Most parents have completed high school, but many have not. Two-parent families with college degrees can be counted on one hand.

That makes the school particularly proud of its test scores, but other forms of accountability ensure that teachers and students keep sight of their college goals. Every teacher, for example, is given a cell phone, and students and parents are given the numbers. Students who don’t understand their homework are expected to call teachers at home.

Teachers quickly learn that a well-taught lesson cuts down on late-night calls. Students soon learn they don’t want to be the ones who always call the teacher.

It’s all part of the school’s effort to push forward as a group. When two ninth-graders got into a scuffle on the first day of school, the new band director was surprised when classes were stopped throughout the entire ninth grade.

“All of the ninth-graders gathered in the band room to talk about what had happened and what should be done next,” Kenneth Woodley said. “It’s called ‘Stop the World’ because that’s what happens. You take care of the family’s problems right away and you do it as a group.”

Woodley, who taught 13 years in traditional classrooms, called it “school as it should be.” But it’s not what parents are used to.

Gaston College Prep and Pride High are products of something called KIPP, shorthand for the Knowledge is Power Program. KIPP, which runs more than 40 schools nationwide, started in 1995 with two schools in inner-city Houston and New York’s South Bronx. The schools are free and have no entrance requirements.

In Western North Carolina, KIPP has an academy in Asheville, which opened in 2003.

In just its first year in Asheville, students’ end-of-grade tests in math and reading showed dramatic improvement among the 46 fifth-graders in the program, as compared with their performance the previous year, Robert Logan, superintendent of Asheville City Schools, told the Citizen-Times in June of that year.

While just 44 percent of the students performed at or above grade level in reading as fourth-graders, more than 80 percent scored at levels considered proficient at the conclusion of their year in KIPP. In math, the percentage increased from 78 percent in the fourth grade to more than 91 percent at the academy.

KIPP gained national attention in 1999 when it was profiled on the CBS program “60 Minutes.” In 2000, the two schools in Houston and the Bronx were showcased at the Republican National Convention. The next stop was rural America.

KIPP’s founders settled on Gaston, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, about 300 miles east of Asheville. But it wasn’t just the town that attracted them. It was Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan.

Sutton and Dolan were already working in Gaston as part of Teach for America, a program that recruits high-achieving college graduates from disciplines outside of teaching.

Teach for America expects its recruits to spend at least two years in inner-city or rural classrooms, but Dolan and Sutton were overachievers — they seemed never to leave their classrooms.

It was exactly the kind of commitment KIPP’s founders were looking for. Gaston College Prep was formed with one group of fifth-graders. Since then, a new grade has been added each year.

Classroom success came quickly, and it wasn’t long before teachers realized the kids would probably backslide if they returned to local high schools. So Sutton and Dolan started talking about scholarships to send them off to boarding schools. That idea eventually gave way to something more practical.

They decided to build their own high school. Until it’s ready, ninth-graders are housed in a separate set of classroom trailers.

This all makes perfect sense to Sutton and Dolan, who weren’t trained in a traditional college of education and don’t spend much time worrying about the way schools are supposed to operate.

“You just use your common sense and stay away from things that don’t directly benefit the kids,” Sutton said.

And it helps immensely that Gaston College Prep and Pride High are both charter schools. That frees them from many of the policies and rules that govern traditional schools — and it dovetails with the autonomy required by KIPP. Those differences paved the way for longer days, longer years, a principal with full authority and teachers who might — or might not — be certified.

It does not mean they run a fancy school. The 27-acre campus is mostly a collection of classroom trailers. About three-fourths of its $2.3 million budget comes from state and county tax dollars as dictated by charter school laws. Fund-raisers and grants cover much of the remaining costs.

But the school leaders are convinced that the quality of teachers — not buildings — dictates success. That’s partly why teachers are paid up to 30 percent more than they could make in surrounding schools. The rules are simple. If something works, keep it. If it doesn’t, toss it out.

For Danielle Brown, that means an unceasing, high-energy, in-your-face approach that defies students to ignore her. When a boy gets caught up in a vocabulary lesson about the word “ravenous,” he tells Brown he is ravenously hungry every 30 minutes. She acts incredulous. After all, she tells him, a class period is 90 minutes.

“But I be hungry!” he insists.

His use of the phrase “I be” triggers a chorus of oohs from classmates who know what’s coming next. Brown gets out a fly swatter, walks over to the boy and playfully swats the “be’s” out of him.

“I be! You be! We be! No, no, no!” Brown says, flipping the swatter around.

While everyone in the room is having great fun, two things are clear. The boy is more likely to use formal English when it’s demanded and he’s not likely to forget what “ravenous” means.

Dolan smiles a bit sheepishly when he hears this story.

“Whatever works,” he said.

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