Jarius Allen was a smart-mouthed fifth-grader headed for expulsion until his parents put him in a school that challenged his intellect and offered a firm dose of discipline.
Now he is a Gates Millennium Scholar starting Georgia Tech this month with enough credits to be a sophomore. Allen says the Knowledge Is Power Program at KIPP South Fulton Academy in East Point was responsible his dramatic turnaround.
“KIPP taught me the importance of hard work and discipline, the things you need to succeed in life,” said Allen, 18. “They improved my character and made me believe in myself.”
The academic boot camp approach at KIPP schools nationwide is known for reforming thousands of wayward middle school students since 1995 with grueling 10-hour days, mandatory Saturday and summer classes and overwhelming loads of homework.
KIPP, a national charter school network educating 32,000 students, makes college a priority for students from low-income neighborhoods where the lure of the streets competes with classes. School leaders say they can turn around a student’s academic performance in fifth through eighth grades.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced this week that a KIPP initiative to train teachers for success at urban schools will receive $1 million in Race to the Top innovation funds. KIPP Metro Atlanta is partnering with Georgia State University and Mercer University College of Education in the project.
KIPP’s extended learning program provides kids with 1.2 years of additional growth in math and 0.9 years of growth in reading, according to a recent study by the independent firm Mathematica Policy Research.
KIPP alumni have a college completion rate four times higher than the national average for students in poverty finishing college by their mid-20s, which is 8 percent.
There are five KIPP schools in metro Atlanta with more than 1,230 students. (More than 720 are on waiting lists.) By 2012, KIPP will open two elementary schools in Atlanta.
KIPP officials said their students spend 50 percent more time in class than other Georgia public school students. The school day starts at 7:15 a.m. and includes core subjects, the arts, academic enrichment and built-in time for clubs.
About 98 percent of KIPP kids in metro Atlanta are black. KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, the network’s first Georgia high school (and its 100th campus nationwide), opened this summer near a dilapidated apartment building in a struggling west Atlanta community with a median household income of $19,000.
The school’s first field trip was to Emory University, where students stayed in dorms, ate in the cafeteria and learned from admissions officers what it would take to get there.
“We want our kids to have the same college completion rate as wealthy kids who have trust funds,” said Steve Mancini, national spokesman for KIPP.
He noted, though, that “it is not a perfect program or perfect fit for every family.”
Nationally, dissenters have said KIPP’s gains are tied to its population of kids coming mainly from African-American and middle-class families already focused on college. But the Mathematica study found no evidence that KIPP was screening kids and said KIPP serves more minorities and low-income students on average than surrounding schools.
KIPP schools serve a small population of kids still learning English and those with disabilities compared with district schools. Just 5 percent receive special education services locally. In contrast, 8.7 percent of Atlanta Public Schools kids and 10 percent of Fulton County Schools kids were special needs in 2010.
KIPP parents are asked to sign a formal pledge that outlines what it will take to get students to college.
Even during school breaks, KIPP kids get homework. Physical science teacher Larry Hampton assigned his students a 16-page online take-home exam over their summer break.
The intensity of KIPP schools has caused some kids to withdraw. Others have been dismissed for failing to live up to expectations.
KIPP provides a structured environment — students walk down halls in straight lines, looking forward. Its brand of discipline has become a bone of contention for critics, who have accused the school of weeding out low performers.
Selah Hampton, who went to KIPP South Fulton Academy, said one time her entire class was punished when a student talked as they lined up for lunch.
But Hampton, now a junior at Exeter, liked that approach. “They teach you the discipline and focus you need to take elsewhere.”
Sabrina Allen, a former PTA president, said when her son Jarius finished KIPP South Fulton as a rising freshman, only 17 of his more than 70 original classmates remained, although others joined his class.
Allen said her son was on a list of kids headed for dismissal when he struggled to conform. “I fought to keep my son there,” she said.
In 2009, KIPP South Fulton Academy was scrutinized for ostracizing 17 students who misbehaved. Parents complained they had not been informed about the punishment, which lasted several days and included sitting on the floor in a crowded classroom. KIPP officials said the staff was retrained to improve its communication with parents and that the students were on in-school suspension.
David Jernigan, executive director of KIPP Metro Atlanta, said the local KIPP schools have a 92 percent retention rate. Nationally, that rate was 88 percent in 2009-10.
All of KIPP’s metro area schools made “adequate yearly progress” goals for student achievement in 2010.