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A Miracle in the Making?
KIPP turns its efforts toward elementary schools

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, April 2, 2006

Laura Bowen wants to create the best elementary school in the District. That doesn't seem very realistic, considering that she is only 28 and that the public school will be located in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. But the KIPP charter school instructor has had success teaching low-income middle school children in Washington, and she saw something at a new school in Houston recently that convinced her the project is not as nutty as it might sound.

Bowen visited KIPP SHINE Prep, a 1 1/2-year-old charter elementary school housed in a collection of portable classrooms in southwest Houston. Seventy-eight percent of its students are Hispanic, 21 percent are African American, and 98 percent come from low-income families. Often kindergartners in such schools struggle to recognize just a few letters of the alphabet. But when Bowen sat down with a SHINE prekindergarten class last November, several 4-year-olds rushed up and asked her eagerly, "Can I read you a book?"

And they did. The books had lots of pictures, and only a few words per page, but the kids were reading them. They knew not only all their letters, Bowen says, but all their word sounds, and they could read simple stories only three months after they had arrived at the school.

Let us stop here for a word of caution. I have not visited KIPP SHINE Prep myself, though I plan to soon. Skepticism is in order. Accounts of educational miracles, like most otherworldly events, are usually wildly exaggerated -- akin to that image of Elvis your neighbor swore he saw on his frosted windshield.

But I have been watching Bowen and her colleagues at the KIPP DC: KEY Academy, a public charter middle school on M Street SE, since 2001, when it was originally housed in an Anacostia church basement. To my surprise, the school has turned out to be as successful as they said it would be.

If education in America were treated like professional football, guys would walk around in jerseys bearing the last name of KIPP DC executive director Susan Schaeffler, instead of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Schaeffler is the 35-year-old principal who led the KEY Academy students, 97 percent African American and 75 percent low-income, to the highest math and reading scores in the city last year.

There are other KIPP middle schools in 15 states also showing impressive gains, but that is largely catch-up work. KIPP middle schools take in many fifth-graders who are two years behind, and by eighth grade bring them up to grade level.

Instead, Bowen wants to follow the example of Aaron Brenner, the 33-year-old principal of Houston's SHINE Prep, KIPP's first elementary school. She wants to do more than help kids catch up; she wants to give them a big head start. There is a federal program with that name, of course, which some critics have trashed because its gains often evaporate when students get older. But research also shows that students who have attended the preschool programs with the best teachers and resources tend to stay at or above grade level.

The most important thing Bowen would do in Washington, which Brenner is doing in Houston, is the simplest and most obvious. Like the KIPP middle school principals, Brenner has junked the archaic six- or seven-hour school day. His elementary school kids show up no later than 7:45 a.m. and don't leave until 4:15 p.m., and some stay longer. Those 81/2- to 10-hour days provide enough time for imaginative instruction, cooperative teacher planning, reading, math, science, social studies, art, music and sports, as well as a one-hour nap and a half-hour recess.

This costs a bit more, which will be worth it if it works. But how can little kids be expected to stay in school so long? The KIPP people smile at that, having watched their middle school students adjust to a rhythm of focused lessons balanced with games, songs and trips to the park. Brenner says his younger students appreciate having time for almost anything: field trips to museums and community attractions; twice-weekly soccer-only PE classes to show children how much they can learn by focusing on one sport; choral classes; art projects; and one other thing that I will have to see to believe.

At SHINE, Brenner says, he is blending the more modern Everyday Math with the more traditional Saxon Math for first-graders. The proponents of those two teaching programs have been at war for 20 years; can combining them really work? I'd predict that joining such radically different elements would cause an explosion, like when I used to toss manganese shavings into the surf to illuminate beach parties.

Brenner seemed unfazed by my doubts. "Our kids are off the charts in math," he says. I haven't surrendered my skepticism, but I will visit his school, and then watch what happens when Laura Bowen brings all this here, where Washington can get a really good look at it.

Jay Mathews covers schools for The Post. He can be reached at mathewsj@washpost.com.

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