It’s not as though Penn and the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) have been strangers up till now. Michael Feinberg C’91, cofounder of the highly regarded network of public charter schools, is an alumnus, and psychology professors Martin Seligman Gr’67 and Angela Duckworth Gr’06 [“Character’s Content,” May|June 2012] have been involved in helping KIPP strengthen student character and learning habits. For years Feinberg brought groups of students on “academic field trips” to Penn, and about a dozen graduates of KIPP schools are currently students at the University.
But now Penn and KIPP have forged a new partnership, designed to bring between 12 and 15 “KIPPsters” who meet Penn’s admissions requirements to the University annually. A $2.5 million gift from Penn parents and charter-school advocates Martha and Bruce Karsh will allow the University to “actively recruit” KIPP students, cover their financial-aid costs, and provide support services while they’re on campus. Penn is the first Ivy League school to participate in the charter-school network’s KIPP through College program, which currently includes partnerships with about 15 schools.
Starting from a single location in Houston, the KIPP network has expanded to 125 schools across the country, serving about 39,000 students, the great majority from lower-income and minority households. When it comes to higher education, 36 percent of KIPP graduates have made it through a four-year college a decade or more after finishing eighth grade. That’s actually better than the percentage nationally among 25- to 29-year-olds (31 percent), but a far cry from the 75 percent graduation rate among the highest-income families—which KIPP hopes to match through programs like the one with Penn and other initiatives.
Calling herself a “proud KIPPster fan” at a ceremony announcing the partnership and gift in October, Penn President Amy Gutmann emphasized the significance of financial aid to her own history as the first person in her family to go to college. “There’s no way I would be here without the scholarships I received,” she said. “Like a lot of KIPPsters I had no idea that there were places like Penn that had financial aid for people like me.” Referring to the KIPP students present at the celebration, she added, “You’re what it’s all about, and we want more of you here at Penn.”
Through their charitable foundation, the Karshes have given mostly for need-based financial aid at Penn and other institutions. Martha Karsh described how they became involved with KIPP after she visited a KIPP school in Los Angeles—and found herself mightily impressed. She told of meeting two young women student guides: “They greet you with a firm handshake. They make eye contact,” she recalled. “They were as articulate and poised as any independent-school student I’ve ever met. So here was my Aha! moment.”
Karsh, a member of KIPP’s national board, saw the opportunity to bring the “school with the funny name” and her children’s alma mater together with the KIPP through College program. Another link was what she called KIPP’s “Franklin-worthy” motto: “Word hard. Be nice.”
Feinberg described the task of fixing public education as essentially a matter of belief, contrasting community attitudes about high-school graduation at well-resourced schools with those, say, in nearby West Philadelphia. In the former, graduation is taken for granted, and when someone drops out, it has everyone “whispering in the carpool line”; in the latter, dropping out merits barely a shrug—as many as half the students don’t finish, after all—whereas graduating, and going on to a school like Penn, is “movie of the week” material.
This the “paradox of the KIPPsters,” he said. “We tell them, ‘We love you and you’re special. And at the same time you’re not special, because there were kids up and down your block and in your apartment complex who could have been here if they were put on the right road.’”
Feinberg called on KIPP graduate and College senior Chevon Boone to speak. Describing her own plans after graduation as possibly including teaching or healthcare, Boone offered thanks on behalf of KIPPsters from “North Carolina to California to Texas to Mississippi to New York and everywhere in between” to the Karshes for their generosity, to Feinberg for his vision, and to Gutmann for Penn’s help in carrying it out. “Though I want to say this is a monumental step for KIPP and Penn both,” she said, “I also want to tell you we are nowhere near done.”—J.P.