Monday, January 02, 2006

Kids prepped for the best

A great story in the Denver Post about KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy and its first class of 8th graders applying to some of the top prep schools in the country.
Kids prepped for the best

Isaiah Ornelaz, a top student at KIPP charter school in Denver, is considering Eastern boarding schools. His mom, center, worries, while sister Shelena, left, says, He s too young. (Post / Glenn Asakawa)

The glossy catalogs stacked on a dresser in Shelley Olivas' house have pictures of sprawling landscapes, kids playing polo on horses and brick buildings with white columns that exemplify a world of privilege and power.

These elite high schools have educated congresswomen and presidents. And they might, just might, educate her daughter.

A program that has built itself as the premier college prep middle school in Denver's urban core, despite its high population of low-income students, is pushing its top eighth-graders, including Stephanie Olivas, to leave Denver for high school.

But that ambition, illustrated best by a lively principal who wants nothing more than to see his best students in the Ivy League, has delivered a wrenching mixture of pride and sadness to families watching their 13- and 14-year-olds dream of prestigious places they haven't been to.

"It finally comes down to thinking about her and not ourselves," Olivas said. "It's our job to think about our kids' future, not about our future. I feel OK about that now, but ask me later. I could change my mind."

The reason behind this push, KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy charter principal Rich Barrett says, is simple: After four years of working 10-hour days, plus Saturdays and summers, in his rigorous program, these students deserve a shot at going all the way.

"I want Stephanie to line up her acceptance letters in the spring. I want her to choose a school that will give her what she wants," Barrett said. "Our goal is not to get every kid into a boarding school, but there are some who should go, and will."

Worries are universal

Amid Barrett's unfettered optimism about the future of his brightest

KIPP eighth-grader Stephanie Olivas has a shot at attending a prestigious private boarding school for high school. Her parents, Shelley, center, and Joel are proud but have worries about sending a young teen so far from their north Denver home. (Post / Hyoung Chang)
13- and 14-year-olds are parents who have never seen Pottstown, Pa., or Lakeville, Conn. - where prestigious Hill and Hotchkiss are located. Parents who - despite overwhelming pride - may not be ready to say goodbye.

"I'll be OK if he's OK. I told him, 'This is fine if it gives you an education,' and then I think, 'Oh, man, I don't want him to go,"' said Peggy Ornelaz, whose son Isaiah is applying to Episcopal High School in Virginia and Choate in Connecticut. "I have realized that I have to give him up."

These top students are not all alike - some are the children of immigrants, some live alone with their mothers, some have never seen a sibling graduate from high school - but their worries about this decision are almost universal.

What will it be like to be on my own? Who will take care of me? What if I miss something big in my family? Who will replace my mother?

Isaiah Ornelaz has missed just two days of school in four years and is among the top three in his eighth-grade class. The pressure from his family, his principal and himself weighs on his shoulders.

His 27-year-old sister Shelena, who calls him "Life," doesn't believe in boarding school.

"I told my mom that I would take him to any school that he wanted to go to in Denver every day," she said. "He can't leave. He is just a kid. He is too young."

Though Isaiah understands, his ambition intervenes.

"I want to be the best. I want to get out of here and do something big," he said. "But I know you can't replace someone you're so used to. I can't replace my mom. I can't replace my sister. There's nothing around there like them."

Successful models

KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy opened

From left, Gaby Valencia, Dianne Barragan, Isaiah Ornelaz, Stephanie Olivas and Mario Pioquinto stand outside KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, whose principal is urging them to aim for a top boarding school after they finish eighth grade at the Denver charter school. (Post / Lyn Alweis)
four years ago in a cramped space off Federal Boulevard with a class of fifth-graders. The school, which has since grown to grades 5-8 and moved to West 29th Avenue, was modeled after successful charter programs in inner-city Houston and New York that take in primarily low-income students of color and work to make them academic superstars.

The school's 293 students and parents are held accountable for everything - from maintaining school uniforms to getting to class each morning by 7:25 on the dot. Through uncompromising 10-hour days, school on the weekends and strict rules such as making students wear their shirts inside out if they don't do their homework, the school has achieved remarkable results.

At KIPP Sunshine Peak, where 88 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, 77 percent of the seventh- graders were proficient in math in 2005 on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.

Compare that with Denver's 850-student Kunsmiller Middle School, about 4 miles away: It also has more than 80 percent of its students living in poverty, and 10 percent of its seventh-graders were proficient in math in 2005.

KIPP's principal, Barrett, has shepherded almost all of his students since grade school - the school prefers to have students start as fifth-graders - and feels a personal responsibility for his first graduating class. He is working to place all 57 of them at schools where they fit best and has hired two full-time high school placement counselors to help.

While he thinks the top five or six should go to the nation's best prep schools, he is urging others to apply to one of the International Baccalaureate programs across the city and the suburbs, as well as in some Denver private schools.

"We've been teaching choice here for four years, that students work hard and have choice in life and that they can choose a school that fits them," said Barrett, who shares his cellphone number with his students and has seen them through family deaths, as well as nightly homework questions. "More than anything, I want them to know they can do really well."

Doubts about DPS

Barrett is already lobbying Denver Public Schools leaders for a KIPP charter high school in the city. But until then, the students "have to go somewhere I know they will succeed," he said. "I'm not sure the DPS high schools can do that."

Out of the 13 traditional Denver high schools, seven were rated "low" in state rankings last school year, and one, the Denver School of the Arts, "excellent."

Barrett, who started with KIPP at the Houston school, began working to persuade what he calls his "top-tier student" families a year ago to apply to boarding schools, knowing that most schools give financial aid or full-tuition scholarships to low-income students.

At first, most said no. But after a year's worth of one-on-one conversations with worried mothers and fathers and students, Barrett has gotten his top students to at least fill out applications this January.

Acceptance letters are sent out in the spring.

"We have respect for the parents," Barrett said. "If we hear, 'Mommy doesn't want me to go to Connecticut,' we ask, 'Why not?' We work hard to assure them."

Cultural differences

Virginia Longoria has warmed to the idea of son Mario Pioquinto leaving Denver for high school. He is applying to Thatcher in California and Hotchkiss in Connecticut. She worries now about the cultural differences he'll face when he gets there,

"From a Latino perspective, this is a hard thing," she said. "Mario often talks about that, that there is all these white people and I'm going to be the only Latino kid there. ... There are mainstream folks who have stereotypes about low-income people of color, and we have a responsibility to change those stereotypes."

The diminutive and quiet Mario said he is eager to get out of his mother's hair. He doesn't want her to worry about him, like she worries about his other siblings, most of whom didn't finish high school.

"I think it makes her struggle more," he said.

But eventually, this front gives way to a 14-year-old boy who is nervous about what he is actually wishing for.

"I worry that something big will happen in the family, and I won't be here," he said, looking down at his hands. "Oh, and my dad, he makes good chicken. I would miss that, too."

Prep schools across the country have goals to pull in more students from diverse pools - such as kids from low-income levels or those from rural areas - which means they're working hard to attract students from places such as Denver.

Since the start of school this fall, at least 15 boarding school admission representatives have visited KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, including Phillips Exeter, Deerfield and Thatcher.

"Schools are making a concerted effort," said Steve Ruzicka, executive director of The Association of Boarding Schools. "It might have been true in the old days that it was bluebloods attending our schools, but it's different now. ... Schools are always looking for new markets."

And Stephanie Olivas, who is ranked No. 1 in her class, will probably be one of these students making a choice this spring. She will apply to Deerfield Academy and Andover, both in Massachusetts, as well as the Denver School for Science and Technology and Kent Denver. She flips back and forth - sometimes in the same conversation - between wanting to go and wanting to stay.

"I need to calm down about it; I get really amped up about the distance," Olivas said.

She recently took a weekend and sifted through letters and brochures from dozens of schools across the country.

"They all say the same thing, that I'll have this great experience and get opportunities. I know that's all true," she said. "I guess I'm just unsure."

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