Saturday, February 6, 2016

KIPP Academy: The Cowardice Of Hope

My friend Cam Winton is chairman of the board for KIPP Northstar Academy located in north Minneapolis, a traditionally poor and minority area of the Twin Cities. He'd mentioned KIPP to me over the last several years when we met for coffee or lunch. I knew it was a charter school for which he had great enthusiasm but beyond that did not know much.

During National Charter Schools Week he invited me to visit the academy to learn more about it. I took him up on the opportunity and was delighted that I did so.

KIPP stands for "knowledge is power program" and what I saw at every turn during my visit there reinforced that mantra again and again. I joined others who were visiting that day and we were given an overview of the school, its origins, its pedagogical premises, its administrators, teachers, staff and, most importantly, its students.

KIPP stresses rigorous academic preparation directed toward maximizing each student's chance at attending the college of their choice. Every student is seen as possessing this ability despite what is freely acknowledged as widely varying backgrounds, both educationally and socially. The school addresses each student where they are, involving the family by way of an actual home visit to explain what is expected should the child and the family choose to enroll at KIPP.

In everyday school life, students wear uniforms, walk in groups from class to class in formation and are expected to complete daily homework in a timely manner, as well as participate in classroom discussions. Most remarkably to me, everyone's progress is charted out in the open for all to see. Rather than mimicking the conventional wisdom which posits this would discourage those behind their peers, KIPP's social and emotional environment ensures that the precise opposite occurs to the greatest extent possible. To see this firsthand was to experience a genuine revelation.

Competition is good. The real world is made of it. Don't make excuses, make another, stronger, better effort to achieve, to raise the test score or the overall grade. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

A network of support for KIPP students exists within and without the school. In the school, obviously, from start to finish each day. And yet teachers and staff are available to students and to their families outside of the normal school day as well. In addition, as students leave KIPP (it currently only teaches fifth through eighth grades) advisors and counselors stay in touch as they move through high school, always with the eye on the prize: college admission.

It's been said by people from across the political spectrum that quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. There I was among the adults who not only realized that, but were dedicating their lives to acting upon that premise for the demonstrable benefit of these young children. I hadn't been this impressed since I couldn't recall.

You can learn much more about KIPP by visiting its website. Click here. If you are so inclined, you can make a donation or volunteer as you see fit. By all means contact the school directly as indicated on the website to learn more or to answer any questions you may have.

The epigram for this blog is a quote from Oswald Spengler (1880-1936): "Optimism is cowardice."

What Spengler meant by that, of course, is that the current situation is so dire, on any and all fronts, that to affect an optimistic attitude about it was simply to engage in the easy way out. Cowardice. It's a fitting quote for the style and the substance of my blog, generally speaking.

Yet coming face to face with the inspiring work done quietly in a residential neighborhood in north Minneapolis was to disabuse me of that comfortable mindset and demonstrate that real good can be done in the here and now for those most in need of it.

KIPP made me an optimist and if by my own metrics that makes me a "coward," I'll happily plead guilty.