It’s graduation day for this year’s crop of leaders-in-training and KIPP co-founder Michael Feinberg is wearing a special outfit: brown cut-off shorts, a dark blue T-shirt with a torn white T-shirt poking out below the waist, and bare feet.
At the KIPP Foundation’s office in San Francisco, Feinberg, 34, says his shabby dress conveys a message to the new graduates: “You’re not done yet.”
And, in truth, they’re not. This group of 11 former teachers who have finished a yearlong program at the Haas Business School at the University of California-Berkeley will spend the next three months shadowing leaders at existing KIPP schools. Afterward, they craft plans for their own schools, then work toward getting them approved by their school districts.
Feinberg knows from experience what it takes to start a school from scratch. Ten years ago, he and fellow Teach For America alumnus David Levin did just that in Houston, where they first hatched a model for urban middle schools.
In the first year, Feinberg and Levin were overwhelmed teaching 5th-graders in some of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods. “We weren’t used to losing, and we were losing bad,” says Feinberg, a University of Pennsylvania graduate.
By the second year, both believed their teaching skills had improved, and they were seeing positive results in the classroom. The bubble burst, though, when former students began calling to ask for homework. Feinberg describes a typical conversation. “It would go like this:
‘Mr. Feinberg, can you give me homework?’
‘Why should I give you homework?’
‘Because they don’t give us any.’
‘Because we can’t take the books home.’
‘Why can’t you take the books home?’
‘Because they’re afraid we’ll lose them.'”
Feinberg feared all of the work the kids had done the previous year would be wasted, and he and Levin, like many young entrepreneurs, hatched a plan in the wee hours of the morning.
The two persuaded a principal and several district officials to allow them to run a pilot 5th-grade program, and in 1994, the first KIPP classroom was established. By the following year, the program had expanded to three 5th-grade classrooms in a Houston public school and two classrooms in a New York public school in the South Bronx. A total of 122 children were enrolled.
Their driving premise was amazingly basic: There are no shortcuts. Today, that slogan is plastered on classroom walls in every KIPP school, where children spend nine and a half hours a day in class, and teachers spend more time on reading, writing and math than traditional public schools without having to sacrifice other subjects such as science and social studies.
“I think what surprised us,” says Feinberg, a native of River Forest, Ill., “was that when we could run the classroom the way we wanted to, what a powerful force and culture we could create in and outside the classroom.”
Feinberg and Levin’s work did not go unnoticed. In 2000, philanthropist Donald Fisher, who co-founded the Gap Inc. with wife, Doris, donated $15 million to launch a program to train educators to run KIPP schools. Since then, the couple have contributed another $10 million. “What appealed to me was the whole concept,” says Fisher. “They developed a formula that works.”
This year, graduates of the program opened 17 new schools, including two in Chicago. A total of 32 KIPP schools are operating in 27 cities and towns, from Washington, D.C., to Gaston, N.C. Next year, this year’s graduates are expected to open another 11.
When a new KIPP school opens, Feinberg, swaps his average-day garb—khakis and a button-down shirt—for a modified tuxedo vest, covered with KIPP logos and slogans.
On those days, he says, he is “the sharpest dressed man in the building.”