Founded in 1994 by Michael Fienberg and David Levin, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Schools are the biggest sensation in education since integration.
With more than 50 schools nationwide, the program has successfully educated hundreds of underprivileged and minority youth since its founding. As a former student of the original KIPP School in Houston from 2000 to 2004, I am a living testimony to the rigorous yet rewarding educational system. But I am also a witness to an area in which KIPP fell short.
Knowing one of the co-founders and many of the teachers and administrators personally, I am sure the intention wasn’t to alienate the black students. In fact, Fienberg believes that “all instruction must be relevant to the learner, culturally and emotionally.”
However, with its progressive ideas in education, during my years of attendance, KIPP reverted to arguably backwards practices in terms of cultural relevance in relation to the students with darker skin.
Of my graduating class at KIPP, I was one of about 20 black students in a mostly Hispanic population. Being the minority wasn’t easy, and some of the teachers at KIPP didn’t make it any easier. There are a few incidents that vividly stand out to me.
I can still remember “judgment day” as I once called it. It was the day that students would learn their fate in attendance at the end-of-year trip. As an extremely well-behaved and straight-A student, I had no worries about my fate. But something was different in the teachers’ eyes when I met them at the judgment table. They told me that I was not on the list to go on the trip. I was shocked and embarrassed. It was heartbreaking news for a former “Student of the Year.” They explained that I had made an improper comment. As I searched my memory bank for any recollection of anything improper, one of my teachers explained my wrong-doing. The improper comment: “I understand and love learning about Jewish history, and I understand our founders are of Jewish heritage. I was just wondering if we could ever learn about black history or more about Hispanic history, since most of us are black and Hispanic.” I fought back tears as my fate was unveiled. I couldn’t understand what was so wrong about that statement. Did the opinion of a little black girl matter in such a school?
There were many other instances when I felt this intolerance, such as the time we were told our black hair products were a joke, the favoritism Hispanic students received, the lack of information we learned about black history, the fact that we were often targeted for misconduct, and the fact that at least one of the school’s plays was about Hispanic culture and none were about my own. But Judgement Day was by far the most hurtful of all my culturally negative experiences at KIPP.
Some may wonder if this experience was unique to me. I guarantee it wasn’t. Quotes on this topic from fellow black KIPPsters include: “We were always asked why we didn’t mingle with the Hispanic children but the Hispanic children were never asked why they didn’t mingle with us,” and “There were special programs that catered to the Latino students and parents, but we never had that.”
After such negative experiences, I vowed to never express my opinion at KIPP again. In fact, my teachers eventually allowed me to go on the trip. But they threatened that if I ever made remarks like that again, I’d be put on a plane, alone, from California to Houston. It wasn’t until Harriett Ball passed, that I decided to openly voice my opinion again.
In February, I received the monthly newsletter from a KIPP Alumni Association representative and was extremely disappointed with what the newsletter mentioned, or should I say failed to mention. The newsletter highlighted Valentine’s Day and internships among other things, but made absolutely no mention of Black History Month, which as its name states, spans the course of the entire month. I was already disappointed with my recent discovery that the woman who had inspired and mentored the KIPP co-founders, was in fact a black woman. It wasn’t until Ball’s passing, seven years after I had completed my KIPP education, that I would learn anything about her. Don’t you think knowing this would have made a world of difference, created a pool of inspiration, for a little black girl at KIPP? Was it merely an accident or pure neglect that the newsletter failed to mention something so important to black people?
I am not sure if KIPP is culturally the same now as it was then, but the 2012 February newsletter suggests that not much has changed at the original KIPP School. I am happy to say that KIPP schools like Liberation and Voyage have been created in predominantly black areas such as the Third Ward and are orchestrated by those who are familiar with black culture and history.
But what about black students who don’t live in these areas? Should they be at risk to have their culture suppressed or even have their opinions taken away like I did? Should they have to feel less-than, blamed or alienated? Although KIPP is widely-recognized as successful, I urge administrators to survey the cultural satisfaction of minority students in a majority setting.
Although primarily progressive, KIPP can learn something from the positive cultural trends unique to the era of segregation.
Lindsay Gary is a senior history major and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.