The first thing I noticed about the KIPP School Summit, the annual meeting of the country’s most intriguing public school network, was the food. It was cheap, simple and abundant — potato chips, popcorn, corn chips, juice bars, hamburgers and fajitas available outside the many meeting rooms last week. This was fuel for teachers half my age, about 1,200 of them, nearly all in their 20s and early 30s.
The second thing I noticed were the principals. Each time I met a school leader, as they are called at KIPP, my generational surprise alarm sounded. Forgive me, but my 62-year-old brain still thinks of principals as men in the middle to later years of their lives. About half of the KIPP school leaders were women. Nearly all of them were, like the teachers, also in their 20s or early 30s, and much more representative of inner-city ethnicities than any other school organization I have seen.
KIPP is short for Knowledge Is Power Program. Each school is an independent public school, typically a charter or contract school that does not have to follow the usual rules in its district. Most are fifth-through-eighth grade middle schools, but some KIPP high schools and elementary schools have been established. The schools are small, usually about 300 students. The school leaders are carefully selected from the best available teachers and given a year of special training. They have power to hire and fire their staffs and use any curriculum they like as long as it produces significant gains in the achievement of their students, more than 80 percent of whom are from low-income families.