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Creative Leaders' Will to Succeed Is Key to KIPP

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, February 23, 2009

Jaime Escalante, the man who taught me the power of great teaching, had a Spanish word he used often in his East Los Angeles math classes: ganas. It meant the will to succeed, the urge to make an extra effort.

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After I moved back to the East Coast, I didn't hear the word again until I met a 30-year-old teacher named Susan Schaeffler. She was starting a public charter middle school in a poor D.C. neighborhood. She said her students would earn "ganas points" if they did something extra to help themselves and their schoolmates learn.

"Do you know what ganas means?" she asked me. I said I did, and I then spent the next eight years watching her take that concept to a level even Escalante, hero of the film "Stand and Deliver," never attained.

On Friday, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is scheduled to visit the new Benning Road SE headquarters of Schaeffler's charter school network, KIPP DC, and bless plans for its expansion to 10 schools by 2012. In most cities, superintendents and charter school leaders don't cooperate. But Rhee and Schaeffler are in sync. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also has endorsed Schaeffler's projects.

We hear much about Rhee, with good reason. She is moving rapidly to shake up how children are taught in the city. But Rhee's is a top-down movement, its impact still uncertain.

By contrast, the little-known Schaeffler, who, like Rhee, started teaching in 1992 in Baltimore's Teach for America program, has executed a bottom-up change that already has exceeded expectations. By this summer, KIPP DC will have three middle schools, three elementary schools and a high school. Most of the students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Yet the three KIPP DC schools that have been around long enough to have a track record -- KEY, AIM and WILL middle schools -- ranked first, third and fourth, respectively, in math achievement by poor children on the 2008 D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System standardized tests. Their overall math scores placed them in the top echelon of all public middle schools citywide.

Readers may note that I write often about KIPP. Those kind of rankings explain why.

In 2000, Schaeffler was one of the first three chosen to be KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) principals after the network's founders decided to expand beyond Houston and the south Bronx. The KIPP formula includes energetic teaching, more learning time, music, travel and fun. But the most important reason why KIPP has succeeded, with 66 schools in 19 states and the District, is creative leadership. Each principal is carefully selected and trained and then told to go run his or her school any way that makes sense, as long as achievement rises significantly.

Schaeffler is known for her focus and toughness. "I was a little scared of her myself," KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg said, remembering how Schaeffler contradicted her superiors within seconds of being told she had been selected to start a school. On that late-night phone call, she said she didn't care if the governor of Georgia was begging for KIPP; she was not moving to Atlanta. If they wanted her, her school would have to be in the District, close to family and friends.

And so the KIPP DC: KEY (Knowledge Empowers You) Academy was born in 2001 in an Anacostia church basement.

When I met her there, assembling school furniture with her father, she explained that KEY would start with 10-year-olds. They would be called not fifth-graders, but the Class of 2009. "Oh, I get it," her father said. "That's the year they will be graduating from high school."

"No, Dad," Schaeffler said. "That's the year they are going to college."

That is pretty much what has happened. There was some attrition. But 94 percent of students from that first class who completed KEY and are now high school seniors have applied to college and seem sure to go. Nationally, only about 10 percent of low-income black students start college right out of high school.

Schaeffler has chosen and mentored seven principals -- Sarah Hayes, Khala Johnson, Jessica Cunningham, Laura Bowen, Philonda Johnson, Cheryl Borden and Kristy Ochs. They have the same freedoms Schaeffler had, although she has made suggestions about timing weddings and pregnancies to mesh with her big plans for them. Schaeffler herself married management consultant Jason Ettinger and gave birth to three children in the eight years since she started KIPP DC.

By 2015, Schaeffler plans to have more than 3,400 students. They will be reminded often that they are going to college. Back in 2001, such talk seemed far-fetched. Not anymore. I call that ganas.

E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com


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