At KIPP, dreams of an Ivy League education

Nasir Harker, of KIPP Charter School in North Philadelphia, hopes to attend Stanford University. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Nasir Harker, of KIPP Charter School in North Philadelphia, hopes to attend Stanford University. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 18, 2012

Nasir Harker, an 11-year-old student at the KIPP Charter School in North Philadelphia, knows everything about wealthy Ivy League colleges like Penn, Princeton, and Harvard:

They’re the places where people in the movies get to go to college.

On Wednesday, Nasir’s chances of attending one of those schools increased when the University of Pennsylvania announced it will become the 10th school — and the first in the Ivy League — to join forces with the nonprofit group to help more low-income students complete college.

At the KIPP school near Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue, parents, students, and administrators said they were thrilled by the news.

“It’s so great to be able to say, ‘I got my master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and you can go there, too,’?” school leader Meredith Mehra said. “That’s really powerful.”

Before children start at KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, Mehra and other staff members visit each family at home and make several promises. One is that KIPP will get their students not only to college, but through it.

To get there, they offer long-term support and constant reminders.

KIPP pupils know that once they get to college, Sarah Gomez, the director of KIPP Through College, an alumni support program, will show up on campus to see how they’re doing.

Each classroom is named for the teacher’s alma mater, the primary reason Destiny Mitchell, who attends seventh grade at KIPP with her twin sister, Diamond, wants to attend Alvernia College in Reading. Last year, Destiny’s teacher, Brianne Moyer, went there.

Mirna Sandoval, 17, who attends KIPP’s high school in Center City, has her eye on Franklin and Marshall College.

Wherever she goes, she will pave a path.

“I will be the first generation to go to college,” she said. “It’s an amazing thing. I feel like I have to go to college to make a difference in my family.”

Kendra Stanford — “like the college,” notes her mother, Yetta — plays basketball and wants to go to NCAA powerhouse the University of Connecticut.

Before Stanford came to KIPP in fifth grade from a Philadelphia district school, she was not doing well in reading. Yetta Stanford knew from reading with Kendra at home that she could do the work, so they began looking for a new school.

At Stanford’s old school in Olney, there were constant distractions, “lots of drama,” she said. Consequences were few.

At KIPP, that changed.

“When I came here, it was like, ‘I get a detention for not doing my homework,’?” Stanford said.

She quickly got with the program. Her fellow students describe KIPP as strict. She does not quite agree.

“They’re not strict,” she said. “They’re determined.”

Detention is part of the KIPP program, but so are rewards. Kendra and her fellow eighth graders will go to Puerto Rico this year for their class trip.

About 33,000 students attend 109 KIPP schools nationally. The company operates four schools in Philadelphia and four in Newark, N.J., with a fifth to open there next year.

Nationally, only 8 percent of low-income Americans have earned four-year college degrees by their mid-20s. Last spring, KIPP reported that 33 percent of its students who had completed eighth grade had four-year degrees 10 years later. This spring, that figure rose to 36 percent

Penn graduate Mike Feinberg cofounded the first KIPP school in Houston in 1994. The first KIPP school opened in Philadelphia in 2003.

KIPPsters go to school every other Saturday and for three weeks in the summer. The curriculum is college preparatory.

But KIPP administrators say they want even more of their students to graduate from college, so last spring they began partnering with colleges to make that happen. Other schools that have become KIPP partners include Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster and Morehouse in Georgia.

Partnerships do not mean automatic admission. KIPP students must meet the same requirements that other applicants do. The partnerships are more like having a door opened. Penn’s tuition next year is little less than $60,000, but the school promises to meet the full financial need for all qualified undergraduates, making it more feasible for KIPP students.

KIPP has been criticized for high turnover among students. In Philadelphia, 90 children enrolled in when the first KIPP school opened here in 2003, but only 34 completed eighth grade.

Of those 34, 88 percent completed high school and 65 percent enrolled in college last fall. School officials say that the numbers reflect the challenges of starting a new school and that retention rates are improving. KIPP’s Philadelphia charter schools’ annual attrition rate decreased from 14.5 percent in 2009-10 to 8.8 percent in 2010-11.

Nasir Harker, drawing an image of a young woman with a pen adorned with a floppy pink fabric flower as he talks about his college dreams, says he wants to go to Stanford University.

He and his mother, Tevan, who both live near Temple University, say the Penn announcement motivates them.

“It makes him push a little harder,” Tevan said .”It makes me push him a little harder.”

Contact Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520, hillmb@phillynews.com or @miriamhill on Twitter.

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