Special Report

School Reform’s 38th Parallel

A report from a demilitarized school zone: the KIPP Academy in the Bronx.

By 10.14.03

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In the South Bronx, there is a hallway. At one end, children in shirts and ties and dresses line up to shake their teacher's hand as they enter their classroom. At the other end, noise escapes an art class. "Excuse me! Why are you running around my room?!" screams a young, blonde, frazzled-looking teacher. "Look at my niggas from the East Side!" yells a black boy, maybe 12 years old.

One can pace the hall, moving from quiet to bedlam and back again. I did so repeatedly on a recent Friday, my jaw a tick away from slack. "A lot of people notice that," a young woman said as she walked past.

The hallway is split between Intermediate School 151 and the Knowledge Is Power Program Academy charter school. The schools share a building on East 156th Street, across from the housing projects, but not much else. Last year marked the sixth straight that KIPP Academy was the highest-performing public middle school in the Bronx; its neighbor has long been one of the worst. As Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein negotiate a new contract with the United Federation of Teachers, there is no better length of linoleum they could study than the demilitarized zone in that hallway that separates the status quo from the forces of reform.

Last August, the UFT's president, Randi Weingarten, made an offer: Teachers at some schools would give up their intricate work rules in exchange for more power in their schools' administration. It seems even Ms. Weingarten recognizes that the teachers contract's regulation of the length of the school day, what teachers can and can't be asked to do, and how teachers can be hired and fired is too burdensome on principals. But her solution of making teachers their own bosses is a cure worse than the disease. Instead, KIPP offers the model of flexibility Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein ought to be replicating.

"We are, in a technical sense, under the contract," the co-founder and superintendent of KIPP, David Levin, told me. The operative word is "technically," however, as KIPP exists in a world divorced from such bureaucracy.

The UFT contract determines teachers' base pay. But outside of that, Mr. Levin, a boyish, 33-year-old Yale graduate in his 12th year of teaching, has a mostly free hand to run his school. Classes there run Monday through Friday from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m., and most Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. That's opposed to the roughly six-hour day and five-day week allowed under the UFT contract. On top of that, KIPP has an extended school year, with three weeks of mandatory summer school. There is a dress code. Students maintain silence and walk single-file between classes. All 251 students are expected to go to college.

Teachers, students, and parents sign a contract called the "KIPP Commitment to Excellence Form." For teachers, this means: "We will do whatever it takes for our students to learn.... We will always make ourselves available to students, parents, and any concerns they might have."

"You have to put in the hours," a sixth-grade English teacher, Blanca Ruiz, told me. Ms. Ruiz, 26 years old and Brooklyn born, spent some time teaching in a traditional public school in Patterson, N.J., with Teach for America. "Some teachers were there for retirement purposes," she said. At KIPP, she finds her work rewarded and reinforced by her colleagues. "There's consistency," she said. "There's a certain expectation across the board, and the kids understand it."

The teachers Mr. Levin selects are the key to KIPP. As a charter school, KIPP is not required to accept seniority transfers -- teachers who, simply by virtue of having spent enough years in the public system, get first pick of plum jobs under the teachers contract. Still, if a teacher doesn't work out, KIPP, as a converted rather than a new charter school, isn't exempt from the contract's machinery blocking principals from firing incompetent teachers. Asked whether he's gotten in trouble on this front yet, Mr. Levin looked up at the ceiling with apparent dread, took a deep breath, and knocked on his wooden desk. "Not yet," he said.

Mr. Levin is no ideologue hostile to the public schools. "I'm a public school teacher," he said with pride. But he has a message: "Ultimately, principals need authority over their staffs."

If Ms. Weingarten doesn't get that, Messrs. Bloomberg and Klein are wasting their time with her. Instead, they could be getting ready to approve the five or more applications for new charter schools expected to come in at the end of this month. That's the way to assault the line that separates KIPP from IS 151. Let's expand the freedom embodied in KIPP -- down the hall and throughout the city.

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About the Author

Ryan H. Sager is editorial features editor of the New York Sun, where his column appears Mondays. Email: rhsager@nysun.com