Diamond in the Bluff 

KIPP students increase scores on standardized tests.

This week, while most fifth-graders are on summer vacation, 100 of their peers will be getting "KIPPnotized."

"We get them indoctrinated to our culture," says KIPP DIAMOND Academy principal Sylvia Mitchell. "For our fifth-graders, it's a brand-new experience."

Starting July 7th, KIPP students go back to school for a three-week summer session. After that, they get a two-week break before starting the school year August 11th along with the rest of Memphis City Schools students.

In addition to KIPPnotizing, the school uses the summer session to administer the pre-test for the Stanford 10 achievement test, as well as their own benchmark exams. Teachers then use that baseline data to help shape curriculum in reading, math, and language arts.

"Many of our fifth-graders come in two to three grade levels behind. We've had students come in at the first-grade level," Mitchell says. "We focus on how to get students up to grade level by the time they finish fifth grade."

KIPP DIAMOND, which consists of the fifth through eighth grades, is part of the national network of KIPP schools. KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program) began in 1994 when two Teach for America alums launched a program for a group of Houston fifth-graders.

KIPP DIAMOND opened in 2002 as a district middle school just north of Rhodes College but has since become a charter school.

Mitchell, who was assistant principal at KIPP last year and a teacher at Cordova Elementary prior to that, says that KIPP "takes it to another level."

"They focus on results from day one, starting in the summer with the pre-test," Mitchell says. It takes about three weeks for teachers to get the results of the students' pre-tests, which gives them enough time before students return to school in August to adjust their curriculum.

"We don't want to limit teachers. They have to prepare students for both the Stanford 10 and the TCAP," the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, says Mitchell.

Students take those exams in April, and the school then compares the scores.

Last year, according to results from the Stanford 10 pre-test, the fifth-grade class entering KIPP outperformed 18 percent of students nationally in reading. By the end of the year, they outperformed 42 percent of their peers in reading.

The rest of their results were just as impressive. In math, they rose from the 21st percentile to the 49th, and in language arts, scores jumped from the 17th to the 53rd percentile.

"There's no secret to what we do," Mitchell says. "The bottom line is that we work really hard. There's a three-way commitment between students, parents, and the school, and we have an unwavering focus on instruction."

In the environment of state-listed low-performing schools, charter and optional schools often are criticized for pulling higher-performing students out of the general population. In some ways, KIPP students are self-selected.

They sign a commitment letter pledging to do their work. They also attend classes from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays. They even attend class from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. about 15 Saturdays a year. Parents must find a way to transport their children to school.

"Parents know instruction is our focus coming in, and their mindset shifts. The kids are vested in their success," Mitchell says.

Self-selection aside, if students and parents are interested in putting the work in, it only seems fair they should have a chance to do so.

The KIPP schools are based on five values: scholarship, teamwork, integrity, perseverance, and fun. At the end of each week, the school has Friday celebration for the last hour of the day.

The school also takes students on culminating field trips at the end of the year. In the past, students have gone camping, to Washington, D.C., and on college tours.

"Many of our students haven't been more than eight or nine blocks from home," Mitchell says. "Exposure is a huge component that helps make what we do work.

Mitchell and KIPP are currently recruiting next year's incoming class. Students who are already enrolled in a charter school, going to a low-performing school, or scoring below proficient on their standardized assessments are eligible.

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