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Unlikely allies advance classroom innovation
School tour brings Sharpton, Gingrich to Baltimore

By Nick Anderson in baltimore
Saturday, November 14, 2009

On a mission from the president, these special envoys for education reform know their roles and play them well: swoop into a successful school, watch kids and teachers hard at work, ask encouraging questions, maybe slip in a partisan jab at one another for the television cameras and then marvel at how amazing it is that they have teamed up on what they call the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, liberal Democrat, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, conservative Republican, did all that here Friday, as they have in several other cities since September. President Obama met with them at the White House in May and urged them to go on tour to promote school innovation.

But they also managed, in coming to the public charter school known as KIPP Ujima Village Academy, to underscore another point: Obama is serious about challenging teachers unions to think differently.

The academy, with 375 students in grades 5 to 8 in the Park Heights neighborhood, is part of a national network called the Knowledge Is Power Program. The school trimmed 45 minutes from its daily class schedule and canceled Saturday classes this fall in response to a pay dispute with the Baltimore Teachers Union. Longer school days and weeks are part of KIPP's formula for raising student achievement in poor urban areas.

KIPP leaders say they had paid their teachers a 20 percent premium to work longer days, but the union had said the school was not paying enough. So KIPP Ujima's school day is 8 1/2 hours instead of 9 1/4 . That's still longer than a regular school day. But KIPP leaders contend that the methods that produced some of the city's best test scores, in a school where most students are from low-income families, have been compromised and that the network might have to pull out of Maryland if the conflict is not resolved.

Enter Gingrich. The Maryland charter law, which requires the independent public schools to abide by local collective bargaining agreements unless unions agree to other terms, "is one of the most destructive in the country," he said. "It ought to be changed."

Sharpton didn't go that far. "This is a listening tour," he said. "I'm not taking any sides." But he seemed impressed by KIPP Ujima, and his presence here, along with Gingrich and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, gave the school a platform to make its case. The envoys popped into Room 121A to watch teacher Yasmene Mumby lead eighth-graders in a discussion about slavery.

"What does it mean to be mentally enslaved?" Mumby asked, urging students to keep their arguments grounded in evidence from primary documents. Gingrich and Sharpton sat alongside students whose uniforms bore the slogan "Excellence Without Exception." Copies of "Nightjohn," a tale of slavery in the South by Gary Paulsen, and "To Be a Slave," by Julius Lester, were piled in front of them.

Then the visitors moved to the school library. Eighth-grader Joshua Woods sat between Sharpton and Duncan, who is an avowed fan of the KIPP model, in a discussion about the school's merits. Joshua urged educators to create more schools like it.

"It could really change not only the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland, but the whole nation," he said.

Joshua added that the school requires a strong work ethic. "If you just want to play around, you're not gonna get it," he said. "You have to want to be better."

"He's a Democrat!" Sharpton exclaimed, provoking laughter.

As the envoys were leaving for another campus, the civil rights activist and former Democratic presidential candidate took note of his unusual partnership with the prime mover behind the 1990s Republican takeover of Congress. "Let's put it this way," Sharpton said. "Only President Obama could have made this happen."

Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the union has never sought to change how KIPP Ujima is run. "Our whole feeling is that teachers should be paid for the time they work, a fair wage," she said. She said she could not comment on the Sharpton-Gingrich visit because she was not there.

Andres A. Alonso, chief executive of Baltimore schools, joined Gingrich and Sharpton and said he admires KIPP but wants all of the city's schools to have autonomy and success. He said the city school system is making progress.

"The charters are the advance arm of an aggressive reform movement," Alonso said.

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