By Jay Mathews
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Like most principals, Dave Levin believed that parental support was essential to a school's success. So when many families pulled their kids out of his struggling South Bronx charter school after its first year, he thought he was in trouble.
Some parents called him and his teaching partner, Frank Corcoran, "crazy white boys." The two had recruited 46 fifth-graders, barely enough to start the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academy, and 12 failed to return for sixth grade. Test scores were somewhat better than at other local schools, but Levin's discipline methods weren't working. By March of his second year he believed that he had no choice but to close the school.
That was 1997. Twelve years later, the academy, saved by a last-minute change of mind, is considered a great success and a model for the 66 KIPP schools in 19 states and the District. Together, they have produced the largest achievement gains for impoverished children ever seen in a single school network.
And Levin did it, in the beginning, with very mixed reviews from parents. The story of his school and others like it suggests that the importance of parental involvement, at least in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, has been exaggerated, probably because middle-class commentators have been imposing their suburban experiences on very different situations. Unchallenged, this misunderstanding of what works for low-income children could stymie efforts to improve the country's worst schools.
The best school leaders say that they don't need much parental involvement when they are hiring staff, creating class schedules and putting discipline procedures in place. Take Susan Schaeffler, the founder of the cluster of KIPP schools in Washington. She had no track record and zero name identification when she and her staff started teaching fifth grade in an Anacostia church basement. She recruited students by standing in front of markets and shouting: "See me if you are interested in a school that will keep your child from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon!" That promise of free child care is what persuaded many parents to give her a try. Much time passed before she was able to prove that her teachers could produce the highest test scores of any public school in the city.
Perhaps the best teacher I ever met, Jaime Escalante at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, was mostly ignored despite his early success. He had to extort parental action with a telephone voice that made him sound, his mostly Hispanic students insisted, like a village priest back in Mexico. If a student missed two days of his math class, he would call the parents and threaten to notify the immigration authorities or whoever he thought might motivate them if he did not see their child the next day. Only years later, after a movie made him famous, did parents decide that Escalante could do no wrong.
Low-income parents may often be distracted just trying to make a living, but they know what works. Once they see a school keeping its promises, they provide the kind of support found in suburban schools. But it's important to remember that good schooling must come before parental support, not the other way around.
In 2006, when Sharron Hall enrolled three sons in KIPP's KEY Academy in Southeast Washington, she wasn't sure that it was the right move. At first she found it difficult to attend the meetings teachers called when her fifth-grader, Jaquan, failed to complete his homework. The school was on a commercial strip where parking was scarce. But this year, her third as a KIPP parent, she is backing every move the teachers make. She was particularly pleased when they decided to have Jaquan, who is younger than most of his classmates, repeat sixth grade. Years before, when she'd asked another charter school to hold back a daughter who couldn't subtract 32 from 58, the teachers had laughed off her request.
Some parents, including those in Atlanta and in Fresno, Calif., who recently lodged complaints that KIPP teachers had punished their children excessively, say that the academies sometimes run roughshod over them. KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg seemed to cross the line several years ago when he told a Houston mother that he would expel her TV-addicted fifth-grader unless she allowed him to remove the family's television set from their apartment. But the mother went along with the plan, and the TV sat in the girl's school homeroom until her steady improvement convinced Feinberg that he had broken the one-eyed monster's grip.
Levin said he always listened to parents. But it wasn't his conversations with them that won them over. It was what they found at the school, which even converted some former critics. He hired veteran public school teachers to help him improve discipline and start an all-school orchestra. Each year, test scores improved, until the KIPP Academy became the highest-performing middle school in the Bronx even though its student body was 86 percent low-income.
Levin saw how strongly parents felt about the academy when administrators and parents from P.S. 31, the regular school housed in the same building, petitioned the local school board to move KIPP elsewhere. When the board convened, only a handful of P.S. 31 supporters showed up, but more than 200 KIPP parents were there to cheer for their children's school.
When the agenda item was announced, the crowd began to chant, "KIPP, KIPP, KIPP . . . ." The district superintendent pleaded for quiet, but the chanting continued until Levin took the microphone. He thanked everyone for coming and said how pleased he was to see parents so involved. The meeting soon ended, KIPP's expulsion no longer an issue.
Such moments have led Levin and many other principals to conclude that they should both listen to parents and do what they know is best, confident that when children succeed, their gratified families will be with them all the way.
Jay Mathews is the education columnist for The Post and the author of a new book about the KIPP schools, "Work Hard. Be Nice: How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America."