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Columns March 27, 2012 //  by  // 4 Comments

KIPP has room for improvement

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 opinion@thedailycougar.com.

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  • Class of 08

    Wow. As a fellow classmate to Ms Gary, I feel that I was naive & oblivious to what was going on. I always noticed that the black girls had their own "group" of friends. They always hung out with each other. Overall they were better off financially that most of the Hispanics there. I always thought it was just a matter of "birds of a feather, flock together". This is an eyeopening article.

  • Unbelievable

    Can’t believe someone in our class wrote something so ignorant. I don’t even see where she is coming from, even from some one young in middle school. I felt we were all treated equally and always given the same opportunities. Like the person above states, the families of student of African Decent were all better off financially than the Hispanic students in school but only difference in programs that were offered was helping parents of students of Hispanic decent to learn English. I don’t see how you state African Culture was not represented, Black History Month was always celebrated in school and if you walk in the original KIPP Middle School you see several quotes by Martin Luther King and other people of African Decent.

    The reason it seemed that students of color were separated from others was because of the same reason it happens in any other school; popularity and interests. The people of African decent were better off financially, their parents were pharmacists, and educated white collar workers. They had different interest than say the group of people who intensely focused on school, those who liked to play video games, those who thought were popular, those who skated and the list goes on. Lindsay also states she was 1 of 20 students of African Decent so she felt like a minority in the classroom but she fails to mention that there were only 50 students in our class… Having 40% of the students being culturally related to you may still be a minority but even with in the Hispanic students there were differences and ”minorities”. . There was Hispanics from Mexican decent, Salvadorian Decent, Cuban decent, Guatemalan Decent, and the list goes on. You were young, we were young. One tends to hang out with the group of people you click with whether white, black or Hispanic. It was interests that set us apart, not our skin color.

    I am disappointed with a former classmate of mine writing something like this about the school that helped her be the successful person she is today and helped her get to where she is. Even she had a better opportunity than 30-40 % of the students in her class, she got the opportunity to leave KIPP and go on to a private High School.

    I truly believe that if it wasn’t for KIPP I would not be the position I am right now, and I believe the author of this article should feel the same way. I was part of Lindsay Gary’s class of 08. I am current student at UH, and soon to be part of their Graduate School and it is all thanks to the teachers at KIPP never giving up on me. The teachers at KIPP were never favorable to any students of a particular race, they helped everyone equally. They pushed us all the same.

    I welcome anyone to visit any KIPP school and see the difference they are making in their student’s life.

    • Jack Covey

      Unbelievable: I don’t know what grad school that you are attending, but I’m sure it requires such attributes as critical thinking and empathy, which you are are surely lacking. You ignore Lindsay’s valid criticisms, then instead respond with shaming language and thought-stopping cliches attacking Lindsay for being ungrateful and “ignorant.” The cultic, pro-KIPP mindset you display in your comment to Lindsay’s article is creepy.

      I mean, let me get this straight: you believe that it is okay for the KIPP school leaders to punish Lindsay merely for asking for some exposure to black culture and history? That, as a result of her questioning, she should be barred from attending the out-of-town field trip? And that later, she she should be threatened into silence, that if she ever dared say such a thing again, she would be sent home, and presumably expelled.

      Since you refused to address these criticisms in Lindsay’s article, one can only presume you believe the KIPP school leaders acted properly in this instance.

      As represented in the above comment, if you represent the lasting effects KIPP has on students, KIPP is a miserable failure.

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