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Creative Leaders' Will to Succeed Is Key to KIPP

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.

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.



Many of you have responded with questions in the comments below. To read my thoughts on this conversation check out "A KIPP Response."

By Washington Post Editors  | February 23, 2009; 9:02 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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KIPP has some remarkable success stories but they also have a history of significant attrition rates. The number of fifth graders entering versus eighth graders "graduating" from a number of KIPP middle school academies is borderline startling.

I don't want to be the bearer of bad news but a trace of realism always makes a story much more reputable.

Posted by: phoss1 | February 23, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Good Morning, Jay – Interesting article.

I did a word search for “parents,” “mother,” “father,” “community,” “family,” “select,” “appl” and “admi” looking for references the KIPP admission process and the role of parents in their kids’ education.

I got no hits on “parents,” “mother,” “community” “family” or “admi.” Hits for the other words did not refer to admissions or the kid’s parents. “Select” referred to selecting principals; “appl” referred to seniors applying to college and “father” referred to Ms. Schaeffler’s own father.

Building on phoss1’s comment above, I think this article is not complete without knowing the role of parents and the admission process in the success of the KIPP schools.

Posted by: efavorite | February 23, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

What do you say to someone like me? I am an enthusiastic middle school teacher, but this kind of intensity scares me. I am just not like this. This just makes me discouraged.

Posted by: pittypatt | February 23, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

The KIPP schools in Indiana are not doing well.
Check out more at
Search for KIPP

Posted by: edlharris | February 23, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Jay – After reading this article over, I have a few questions. You are very precise about the percentage of seniors (94) who apply to college, but vague about how many kids make it to their senior year, saying only that “there was some attrition.” Surely information on attrition exists. What percentage of kids leave and for what reasons?

I’m perplexed about what seems to be a critical omission and I’m concerned that people who read this article once over lightly will be seriously misled. I know you’re an experienced, respected education reporter, so can’t figure out why you’d write something that seems incomplete and misleading. What am I missing here?

Posted by: efavorite | February 23, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

In response to efavorite - that's 94% of the 8th graders promoted from KIPP DC. KIPP currently does not serve high school students.

Posted by: dcteach1 | February 23, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, DCteach, for informing me on that point, but we still don't know the percentage who didn't make it to the 8th grade in KIPP.

I also now notice that Jay didn't mention the number of kids she started with -- only the number she projects for 2015.

Posted by: efavorite | February 23, 2009 6:39 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting the point made regarding attrition in KIPP schools. My reading on KIPP from Jay's terrific book, Work Hard.Be Nice. along with my own experience with KIPP in NC and charter schools in NC indicates that students leave because they choose not to follow the KIPP program.

The KIPP teachers exhaust themselves as no other public school teachers I know to try and keep students within the program. Make no doubt about it--the KIPP program is demanding. At some point the rest of the class suffers from those who choose not to follow the contract they and their parents signed upon admission to the school. What more would you want KIPP teachers and admin to do?

Look at their test scores and you will be blown away by the achievement at every level of KIPP. At KIPP Pride High in rural Gaston County, NC 84% of their inaugural senior class( 105 students) have been accepted to colleges at this time.

I grow weary of naysayers like phoss1;KIPP does more than wait around for "stimulus packages" to help underserved populations in the inner cities and rural areas. KIPP is achieving where the traditional public schools have not.

Posted by: k1jschultz | February 23, 2009 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I completely approve of the idea of KIPP. I'm learning about it reading here. It sounds like a demanding free, open-enrollment program. If you can’t make the grade or follow the rules, you’re out. That’s fine. That’s good!

I’m opposed to KIPP being misrepresented as being like a public school but with more committed, hardworking teachers. It sounds like the parents and students have to be more committed too. And for those who are not, they can always go the public school route. KIPP is just like a private school in that respect. Public schools have to take all kids, irrespective of behavioral and family problems or lack of commitment. Without public schools, neither KIPP nor private schools could exist. They would have to keep problem students, thus lowering achievement rates for all students. Parents wanting to avoid dysfunctionality would have no place to go.

I’m all for KIPP and private schools, but let’s not use them to make public schools and public school teachers look bad. It’s apples and oranges, and the apples are parasites.

Posted by: efavorite | February 23, 2009 10:54 PM | Report abuse

efavorite, the only people paid a salary to teach in this equation are the teachers.

Constantly pointing fingers at the parents is nothing short of whining and is completely outside the realm of any discussion of teaching. For you to continue to willfully "not get it" is disheartening. Someone is getting paid a salary to do a job. We are always uniquely discussing people who are paid a salary to do this job.

This reminds me of the superbowl- if you want to bet on a team, you need to bet on one team or the other (teachers or students), you can't bet on the marching band and expect not to lose money. The marching band isn't in the game. That's why you don't see your keywords in the above article- because you're looking for something that really doesn't matter. really!

Posted by: bbcrock | February 23, 2009 11:06 PM | Report abuse

Also, I knew a woman whose son was asked to leave KIPP because he wasn't succeeding. she listed four people I sort of knew about whose children were also asked to leave DC KIPP schools. They are constantly weeding out kids who don't do well and if anyone doesn't think it's remarkable that every student I know who attended a KIPP school was asked to leave then I think you don't understand the statistical improbability of that UNLESS attrition is quite high.

Posted by: bbcrock | February 23, 2009 11:10 PM | Report abuse


Are your pieces editorials or researched pieces of journalism? There are many sides to KIPP including some great success stories. There are also demands on teachers which require them to be "parents" 24/7. It would be better journalism to research the turnover of teachers, students, etc. Other charter schools take KIPP students that have been "excused". It takes "ganas" to present something as truth without looking at its complexities.

Posted by: lk11 | February 24, 2009 6:03 AM | Report abuse


You seem to like KIPP the same way that you gush over Advanced Placement (AP). And, in this column on KIPP you omit relevant and important data that question KIPP's achievement record. For example, KIPP has an application process; not just anybody can attend. And, as Richard Kahlenberg pointed out in his review (Post, 2-22-09) of your recent book, the attrition rate is extraordinarly high. And, nationally at least, KIPP schools spend more per pupil than public schools. Teacher turnover is a problem too.

In this column you say that 94% of students from "that first class who completed KEY and are now high school seniors" applied to college. That's all well and good, but you fail to note the percentage of the first class total population that made it to the senior year.


Posted by: mcrockett1 | February 24, 2009 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Building, even more, on previous comments by efavorite and phoss1… I would agree that the number of students “graduating” eighth grade compared to those entering the fifth grade probably differ. I would also argue that the gap has probably closed over the last few years, but I don’t have those numbers and may be wrong. The difference in those “graduating” and those entering could be due to many variables; one may be that some students have been asked to leave, but others include a parent voluntarily using choice as a means to change schools or the unfortunate transience that occurs in low income neighborhoods (and in this area that transience can lead to a family moving outside of the District which would make a child ineligible for KIPP or any other DC charter school).

As far as “googling” a whole bunch of words to find something out about KIPP and suggesting that someone add more to an article I would suggest visiting one of the schools and talking to the leaders to find out your information.

Posted by: delray | February 24, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Hello, Delray - certainly there are many variables involved. That's why it would have been good to have more information instead of just the mention of 94% college applicants. That sounds good, but it doesn't say much without knowing the attrition rate.

As for googling words, I did a simple word search of the article to make sure I hadn't missed anything, before making a statement about the content. Even so, I got something wrong. I said "family" had not shown up. It does - but again it's in reference to Ms. Schaeffler's family, not her students.

Of course a word search on an article won't completely inform me about KIPP or any other subject.

My only beef with KIPP schools so far is in having them be presented as superior to public schools without being completely candid about the differences between the two and the natural dependency that KIPP has on the public schools.

My concern is that public schools will just become a dumping ground -- that as KIPP gets better, public schools will have to get worse. While helping some kids, it perpetuates the problem of poor schooling for those who need it the most.

Posted by: efavorite | February 24, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Leahjc | February 24, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I posted yesterday, reacting to these great comments and questions, but it
did not make it, for reasons no one can explain. So I try again:

The attrition rate for full size KIPP middle schools is only about 10 percent, very good for their neighborhoods. Some brand new KIPP schools lose much more than that the first one or two years, but tend to get better as the school leader and teachers figure out how to address the problem.

The figure of a 60 percent California KIPP attrition rate in the otherwise lovely review of my book in the Post Sunday was wrong. That was the figure for just one class in one new California school, which has since improved a
I will have a piece on parents and KIPP in the Post eventually. They are holding on to it for the good reason that we have had a lot of KIPP stuff, and there are other good education stories that also deserve space. There is much about parents in the book. They are key to the schools' success, but usually not at the beginning, when the typical KIPP parent does not
know much about KIPP and does not expect much. One of the things KIPP teachers focus on is proving themselves to parents.
Don't let the KIPP teacher intensity scare you before you talk to some KIPP teachers. The ones I have interviewed are very nice, otherwise normal people who love their work, because of the support and extra time they get to do their jobs.

Please scroll to the next comment to continue reading my post. Thanks, Jay.

Posted by: Leahjc | February 24, 2009 5:57 PM | Report abuse

KEY's first class of about 80 kids has 62 members who KIPP knows are now high school seniors, and 58 of those are going to college. I used the percentage because it compared more clearly with the 10 percent going to college rate for low-income black high school seniors. I am asking where those other 18 KEY first class members are. I failed to ask before. It is a good question. I suspect KIPP has lost touch with some of them.
I did not ask how many of the original 80 made it through 8th grade, but i will ask. We know it was at least 62.
I have looked carefully at both KIPP families and non-KIPP families, and have found no data so far that show them to be clearly different in any major way in those neighborhoods. More studies, like the big Mathematical study, may clear that up.
I have heard these stories of KIPP kids being weeded out, and have repeatedly asked the people who tell them to me to put me in touch with these families so I can check the stories. So far none have. My interviews with KIPP teachers, and much time spent at KIPP schools, indicates that if such does happen, it is very rare, much less common than the weeding out
done at regular public schools, who usually have special programs--in many cases just warehousing--to send troublesome students.
I write a lot more than any other American education reporter. It is a flaw, in a way, but there it is. So I am surprised if someone says I haven't covered something, particularly relevant to KIPP. This was just one 800 word column. No space for everything. Please read my new book, or
google my name and KIPP, and you will see a lot more.
KIPP has to accept all students who apply, like all charters do, just like a regular public school. The difference occurs when there are more applicants than spaces. In that situation, KIPP schools hold a lottery. State law usually gives siblings preference in the lottery, but otherwise they have to take everyone. Very few regular inner city public schools, at
least in DC, are oversubscribed. That is why DC has closed so many schools lately, so very few schools are overcrowded.
Any more questions? try me at
-- Jay Mathews

Posted by: Leahjc | February 24, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse

GO KIPP keep up the great work. Maybe the answer is to turn all schools into KIPP schools then 85% of all children could graduate highschool and go to college.

Posted by: truthseeker3 | February 25, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse


I would still recommend visiting a KIPP School, if you haven't. I also apologize for coming off as snarky; the part I hate about comment boards is the almost "CNN Crossfire" like way in which individuals write to express their opinions and mock anyone who believes differently than them.

I think your fear of public schools as a dumping ground is valid, but it's also important to realize the reason for charters in the first place. I listened in on the SUNY charter authorization meeting last fall and the head of the committee talked about the importance of remembering that charters were not created to take over the public schools they were put here to be an alternative and as a way to compete. The decline in public schools has happened over many years in DC and the city's lack of change has been at the root of this.

I am a "reformista" I guess. To give you some background about myself, I grew up in the area and have worked in both charter and "traditional" public schools. I am not a Teach for America corps member, although most TFA corps members I have come to know are either teaching or in education in some form and these corps members date back over ten years. My point being that as far as the two main camps that seem to be involved in the betterment of our schools the reform camp is the one that ones to deal with the culture of education now, which is DC's biggest problem. The other camp seems to want social services to prop up the other parts of a persons life and hope that education will then happen easier.

I do believe the union has a place in the process and that teachers deserve due process, but I also believe that the reform movement makes teaching even more important and in the long run prestigious. Reformers do ask teachers to do more and ,hopefully, get paid six figures for doing more. I left teaching after six years, the main reason I left was the emotional drain of working with families day in and day out. I wouldn't give up any of those days and am currently thinking about getting back in to the classroom.

Posted by: delray | February 25, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Hello Jay,

I would like to comment on a side issue to
this article,and that is the use of the word "Creativity" to lead the headline. It is obvious that the nation is anxious to reform education, and you have recognized that leaders need to be creative. Why,then,
is so little talked about what it takes to be creative? There are many avenues, of course, but one of the most direct is by participating in/studying one of the arts. And yet, in times of economic turmoil, the arts are again relegated to some of those frills that we just might have to let go of.
I would love to see you do an in-depth article of the kind of transformative thinking and processing that involvement in the arts can produce for both students and leaders.
To give you one little-known fact to go on: Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century's great leaders, used to paint in his spare time and was quite accomplished
in this creative area; it begs the question,how did painting help him with the enormous responsibilities on his shoulders?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 25, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Boils down to GIVING THEM THE RESOURCES (teachers, students , parents) and then DEMANDING PERFORMANCE - NO EXCEPTIONS. Much of it is applicable to EVERY PUBLIC SCHOOL, like it or not - We could sit and state a thousand reasons why none of it is applicable HOWEVER the most productive conversation as a professional is HOW CAN WE IMPLEMENT THE ELEMENTS THAT ARE TRANSFERABLE? Although creative and driven leadership cannot be minimized, there are other elements to be studied - curriculum, pacing, resource allocation....

Posted by: petercat926 | February 25, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Delray. I’m sure seeing a charter school would provide more insight. Meanwhile, I’m for the idea and any idea that improves education without hurting students or teachers along the way. I’d like to think that there would be a way for committed teachers like you to help kids without experiencing undue emotional strain.

When public schools work well, I haven’t noticed teachers getting all the credit (or demanding it), but when public schools don’t work, teachers get blamed. They are easy targets, somehow. I don’t recall that doctors who work in inner-city clinics are blamed for their patients’ poor health.

Jay – thanks for getting back to us with some answers. I think that even in a short article, it’s important to include key, clarifying points. You could have mentioned that family plays and enormous role and that you planned to follow up with an article focusing on that. Also, providing the attrition numbers upfront would have answered, rather than raised questions.

Posted by: efavorite | February 25, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

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