On Oct. 2, we were at Penn for a very special occasion: a ceremony to cement the partnership between my alma mater and the Knowledge Is Power Program, the charter school network I helped found with other teachers including Penn alumni. We were overflowing with pride and excitement, as Penn President Amy Gutmann expressed her commitment to make a Penn education possible for high-achieving KIPP students — regardless of their economic circumstances. To me, it felt like coming full circle. After more than 20 years as an educator, I thought back to where it all started — with a Teach For America sign-up sheet.
When I joined Teach For America in 1991, I had no idea that I would end up making a career in education. I had just graduated from Penn with a degree in international relations and I figured I would take a couple years off and then go to law school. But I believed in the mission of Teach For America: to make sure all children get a high-quality education, no matter their background. So I signed up.
I spent two years teaching fifth graders in inner-city Houston and I loved the experience — both the good days and the challenging days. Over time, I began to feel that my students needed more than they were getting — more support, more attention, more time to catch up. So one night in 1993, I got together with Dave Levin, another second-year Teach For America corps member. The two of us stayed up all night, talking, writing and listening to U2’s “Achtung Baby” on repeat Baby. By morning, we had come up with the idea for a school called the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP.
At KIPP, students would attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., on weekends and in the summer. They would know from the moment they enrolled what year they would graduate from college. Parents would be equal partners in the commitment to getting their kids on the path to and through college. Dave and I would be available on cell phones until late in the evening, so parents and students could ask all the questions they wanted.
Our goal was to make learning fun, while also helping students climb the mountain through college. Almost immediately, our students began defying the odds. By year’s end, 90 percent were reading at grade level, when less than 50 percent entered on grade level.
Since then, KIPP has grown beyond our wildest expectations. It’s now a national network of 125 schools in 20 states, serving 39,000 students — 85 percent of whom are from low-income families. Our students’ four-year college completion rate is above the national average for all students, and more than three times the rate for students from low-income families nationwide. But KIPP’s goal is even higher: we want to reach a college completion rate that is comparable to that of the nation’s highest-income students. To achieve this goal, we are partnering with institutions like Penn to make sure these students get the academic, social and financial support they need to finish college and succeed in the working world.
Teach For America corps members and alumni are playing a crucial role in KIPP’s expansion and success. It starts in the classroom, of course: over 30 percent of KIPP teachers nationwide came through Teach For America. We also have more than 60 alumni serving as school leaders, and countless others working in schools as business managers, instructional coaches and community outreach directors. Working together, all of these Teach For America alumni are proving that your ZIP code need not define your destiny.
Teach For America’s next application deadline is Monday, Nov. 5. Think about signing up. It just might alter the way you see the world, and lead to a world of partnerships and opportunities you never would have expected.
Due to extensive power outages and travel implications on the East Coast caused by Hurricane Sandy, we are keeping our application open until Monday, Nov. 5 at noon. Our thoughts are with those who were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
Mike Feinberg, a 1991 College graduate, is co-founder of the Knowledge is Power Program. Follow him on Twitter @kippbigdog.