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Date: 2009-04-22

Education in New York – Off to school

Thursday I am in Newark, New Jersey’s largest town and long a byword for urban decay. I’ve been invited by KIPP (the “Knowledge is Power Programme”), the biggest and best known of America’s charter-school chains, which has three schools in Newark, with a fourth to open this autumn.

Founded by two Teach for America alumni (how familiar that story is getting) in 1994, there are now 66 KIPP schools nationwide, mostly middle schools (ie, with students between 10 and 14 years old). Oddly, none of Newark’s KIPP schools are called that: under the state’s charter law “brand” names are banned, which reflects early fears that big chains would come in and take over. Those fears have dissipated, and Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor since 2006, is a good friend of charters, and wants to see more of them.

I’m actually a bit nervous. KIPP has a fearsome and to my mind not entirely attractive reputation in England for a zero-tolerance approach to discipline—insisting that children keep their gaze on teachers who are speaking, and nod and say “yes” in response to teachers’ requests; giving detentions for minor transgressions; and “benching”—that is, seating naughty children separately in class and forbidding other pupils to speak to them during breaks. A certain type of English politician practically drools when talking about KIPP—the ones who, like many of their compatriots, dislike and fear children, and love all talk of treating them harshly. I’m half-expecting to find dead-eyed Marine-sergeant types with crewcuts barking orders at children one-third their size. If it turns out that the only way to maintain order and calm in a tough urban school is to run it like a boot camp, it will make me very sad.

I cannot remember when my expectations and reality last clashed so much: the day turns out to be the most fun I’ve ever had visiting schools. I’m shown around RISE, one of KIPP’s two middle schools in Newark, by Drew Martin, its principal, and Ryan Hill, the executive director of KIPP in Newark. Both had become head teachers by the age of 25 and both are TFA alumni—and although their desire to create great schools is real and serious, they have fun while doing it.

Teachers certainly control their classes, but they also crack jokes, and over coffee I’m told about the running mock feud between the English and maths departments, with offices dismantled and reinstalled on roofs and other undergraduate-style pranks. The pupils take part in the friendly rivalry too—which may be one reason that they have an unusually positive attitude towards maths, a subject that is generally badly taught and widely disliked, in both America and Britain. As I walk around the school I realise the consistency of the school’s approach to discipline frees the teachers to have fun with their classes.

This is a happy school, but I hear some very sad stories, of makeshift fostering arrangements with indifferent relatives, of siblings in the care system who are no longer in touch, of absent, drug-addicted parents, of children who routinely witness gang-related violence. One that sticks in my mind starts “She’s not being abused, but…” and doesn’t get better as it goes along. Quite a few of the pupils prefer to stay on after lessons—and this is at a school with 10-hour days, Saturday classes and short vacations. One girl tells me a teacher drives her home each week-day evening, at 9 or 9.30pm, after which she goes straight to bed. What does she do at weekends? A shrug: “I stay in my room.”

In the afternoon Joanna Belcher, principal of SPARK, the KIPP elementary school that will open this autumn, takes me to meet one of her future pupils. Ms. Belcher is visiting every family, both to meet the parents and children individually, but also to sign, with them, the KIPP commitment to excellence: in summary, work hard and be nice and we will do everything in our power to ensure you go to college. Mother and father and Joanna sign in pen, the four-year-old future college graduate in purple crayon (her favourite colour). It’s a solemn moment.

The day finishes with a chat with middle-school pupils. I ask each to give me one thought to take back to London. One tells me “Math is life”, a slogan I’ve heard repeatedly through the day; another speaks eloquently about the many meanings of “yet”, a word that for these teachers and pupils connotes effort and success—if not now, then surely one day, if only you keep trying.

A third tells me with considerable force and passion that no one should ever call a child “disabled”. I am taken aback until I hear about the foster parents who thought she was incapable of coping with a normal education, the social workers who read the forms and then never looked her in the eye—and finally, the adoptive mother who believed in her and let her apply to this school, her first mainstream one, where she is still behind her classmates, but catching up fast. It is just one of many moments in the day that brings a lump to my throat.

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