A few months ago, Class Size Matters met with a former KIPP student who lives in the Bronx and her mother to hear about their experiences at the celebrated charter school. What follows are excerpts from this interview. The girl’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Mom: Students who are accepted to KIPP and who have IEP's [individualized education plans] do not get the correct services or help to be successful. The school would rather make it difficult, leaving the parent frustrated and forcing her to remove her child. The principal always invited me to take my child out if I did not like the way she was being treated. My response was always, "She has a right to be here just like any other child who went through the lottery system. She will stay until she finishes." My reasons for her to continue were because the curriculum was good and I knew that she could benefit academically from the rigorous demands, but sometimes they went to the extreme and she suffered for it.
At the very first, I saw the way they were talking to some kids in the line as they’re going in. They’re like (shouting) “Oh you know you’re not supposed to come in here with those!” And I'm saying to myself, it doesn’t have to be like that – they were screaming at them. I said to myself, you know, I really have to find out about this school. So I decided that I was going to be very active.
Well, that’s where my problems started. Because then it became war. I wasn’t welcome there, and I noticed it. Because I used to pop up unexpectedly and I would hear these teachers really being mean! And they would say, “You can’t be here, you’re interrupting, they’re in class, they’re in session” And I said, “I have a right to be here.”
One day Celeste [her daughter] was sick. She was out for three days with a doctor's note. When she returned the teacher tells her, “Oh, take the test, it won’t be counted.” Celeste brings me the test, because parents had to sign the exams. So I said to her, wait a minute, you were out – why did you take the test? And she said, “The teacher said it wasn’t going to be counted.” And I said, “Yea, it’s counted!” So I went to the school and I said to her teacher, “I understand you told Celeste that this test wasn’t going to be counted. She’s been out for three days, you should have given her a chance to study and make up the material.” And she said, “Well, she should have had notes…she is having difficulty in science.” I said, “She was told it wasn’t going to be counted. I think you should give her a make-up.” And she said, “Well I don’t give make-ups.”
So I told the principal that I think it’s unfair. And she goes, “Well-” – here comes the double talk – “you know, Celeste is struggling.” And I said, “I know she is struggling and I don’t think you understand. She has a right to be here just like every other kid. And you guys, as educators need to understand that there are strategies to working with these kids.” But, you see, their strategy is “We’re not working with any difficult kid. We’re here to demand, and you perform.” That’s the attitude.
You know what happens to the “difficult kids”? The parents take them out. And nobody hears about them again. But I’ll be damned if I was gonna take her out. You know why? Because every child has a right.
I knew there was something Celeste needed help with but I didn’t know what it was. So I said to her teacher, “Do you think you could proceed with recommending her for an evaluation and stuff?” I was thinking that maybe they provide the same services as the Dept. of Education.
They said, “Well we don’t do that; we don’t have any help for her. So I submitted an application to have her evaluated with the Dept. of Ed, downtown, and they realized that she did need the help. She started having someone to come in for a half hour every day to work with her on math, English, and whatever other problems. He was a SETTS [special ed] teacher. He confirmed everything that I thought was going on. He said to me, “I can’t believe what goes on in there.” And I said, “Like what?” And he said, “Well there’s a lot of corporeal punishment.”
Celeste: When my mom first told me about KIPP I was happy because they have the orchestra, and I really like music and I love playing the instruments and all of that. Towards the end of that first year [5th grade] is when I started really feeling the impact of it. They give so much homework, and I'm there for so long. I wasn't used to it. In elementary school you get a little bit of homework and you're there for, like, 8 hours. But there you were there for 13 hours. You do five hours’ worth of homework. And then I really started disliking the school.
I had to sit like this. [demonstrates] It’s called S.L.A.N.T.: Sit straight. Listen. Ask a question. Nod your head. Track. Track is, if the teacher is going that way you have to… [demonstrates] follow… If you didn't do that, they'll yell at you: "You're supposed to be looking at me!" [points to demerit sheet] "No SLANTing." They'll put that on there.
If I got into an argument with a teacher, I would have to stand outside the classroom on the black line, holding my notebook out. [Stands up and demonstrates, holding arms out] I would have to stand there until they decided to come out. For 20 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes they’ll forget you’re out there and you’ll be there the whole period –an hour and forty minutes standing. if you have necklaces you have to tuck them away so they can’t see them – or else they’ll have you write four pages of a sentence about KIPP – “I must follow the rules of the KIPP Academy” or “I must not talk” for four pages.
They would have us stand on the black line for as many minutes as they felt was right for what I did. I would never get my homework during that hour when I was outside on the line. And I'd ask for the homework, they'd be like "I'll give it to you later". And the next day I would come in without homework and it goes directly on my paycheck [the demerit system].
My science teacher got mad once because I sneezed. He said "Get out of class!" And I said, "No, I won't get out of class for sneezing" And he was like, "Yes, you are." He called the principal and I still didn't leave. So they were like "We're going to call your mother. So let's go." And I was like, "Fine." And I just walked out. Then the teacher wrote down everything, like 'Not paying attention.' He would write 'Talking' 5 times so I could get -5 points. He was saying I had a negative attitude.
I noticed that a lot of kids left. In 5th grade, there were about 50 students. 6th grade, I came back and there were 30. 7th grade: 20. About 10 of them were held back and a lot of them left.
A lot of the teachers left too. When I got to 6th grade, the 5th grade teachers had all changed. By the time I got to 8th grade, there were only about four teachers left that I knew. And now it's all new teachers. None of them are there that I went to school with.
The teachers said, "We want you to be the best you can be. No attitude.” But they're the first ones to give you attitude. They're hypocrites. We used to have 'Character Class' on Fridays where they would tell you to be open-minded and stuff. But they weren't open-minded. They were closed. If I needed help, they would say, 'Oh, well you have to figure it out.'
Teachers would scream at us all the time. Sometimes for things we did, and sometimes for things we didn't. A kid would raise his voice. Then the teacher would raise his voice. Kid would raise his voice higher and the teacher raised his voice higher. Until it was a screaming match between the kid and the teacher. And then the principal comes in, and it's three people all screaming at each other. It would give me such a headache!
At KIPP, I would wake up sick, every single day. Except on Sunday, 'cause that day I didn’t have to go to school. All the students called KIPP the “Kids in Prison Program.”
And now that I'm in this [district high] school I'm relieved. I'm glad I didn't go to KIPP high school. Now, I wake up and I want to go to school. I want to see my friends. I want to see my teachers. It's more welcoming. You walk in there, it's like "Hey! How are you doing?"