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Long days, strict rules mark schools

Pupils' workloads are heavy at L.A. charter sites that have drawn a billionaire's support.

January 18, 2008|Jason Song | Times Staff Writer

Antonio Chavez spends 10 hours a day at school and two or three doing homework because he wants to go to UCLA. He isn't sure what to major in. "I need some time to learn what my interests are," he says.

Fifth-graders generally do.

At most schools, 10-year-olds don't think much beyond the next recess, but at the Knowledge Is Power Program Academy of Opportunity in South Los Angeles, the idea of attending a top-notch college is drilled into students' heads from the moment they walk through the door at 7:30 a.m. until they leave at 5 p.m. Chavez isn't even a fifth-grader in KIPP-speak. He's a member of the class of 2015, when he hopes to enroll in college.

In addition to long school days, students have to wear uniforms, go to class during the summer and on Saturdays and earn "dollars" they can use to attend year-end trips to the East Coast, Utah and Costa Rica.

The tough, corporate approach has brought early results. Academy of Opportunity students' test stores have risen dramatically, and philanthropist Eli Broad is betting that the formula will be successful at other sites. He donated $12 million Thursday to fund four more KIPP schools in the city.

In KIPP and Aspire, another charter group that he funded this week, Broad believes he has found proven formulas. The two teachers who founded KIPP opened their first school in Houston in 1994 and another in the South Bronx in New York City a year later. In 2000, Doris and Don Fisher, co-founders of the Gap retail chain, learned of the school on "60 Minutes" and have since given the organization more than $50 million.

KIPP has 57 campuses across the country, including two in Los Angeles. Charters are independently run, publicly funded campuses that are free from many state and local dictates.

Every activity is an opportunity for success or failure at KIPP, even a fire drill.

When the alarm sounded earlier this week, the KIPP students lined up quickly and stood facing Principal Ian Guidera. The 340 "KIPPsters" were so quiet that birds could be heard chirping in a tree across the street.

"Minute, 23 seconds," Guidera said finally. "That's awesome."

The students remained still until Guidera said, "About face," and they turned in unison to go back to class.

Not everyone is sold on the KIPP system. Critics say the test scores aren't surprising, given the high level of parental involvement. The school costs nothing to attend, but before their children enroll, parents must sign a document promising to take them to school, check their homework and meet with teachers.

"It's not a model for urban schools; it's a model for families in urban areas with parents who are supportive and want more for their children," said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University who studies charter schools.

And the workload isn't for everyone. Andrea Tovar enrolled in the KIPP school in Lincoln Heights in 2004 as a fifth-grader but left two years later. Her mother, Juana, said that the homework load was too heavy and that when Andrea fell behind, she couldn't catch up.

The work "is impossible for a 10-year-old kid," she said.

Even parents of current students said they were surprised by the workload. Nia Henderson has two children attending the academy and said her daughter "wanted to cut her wrists every morning."

"The beginning is very rough," Henderson said. "But it taught her discipline, which I love."

Teachers and administrators use a reward system. Each student is given $10 a day in make-believe funds but can have money taken away for a variety of infractions, including not doing homework and not following the dress code. KIPPsters must maintain a certain weekly average "income" to be able to attend end-of-the-year trips. Eighth-graders have to perform three hours of community service to get a blazer.

The system gives the school a "Kindergarten Cop" feel. There's no graffiti anywhere on campus, not even in the boys restroom. Students must have a book in their hands when walking the halls, and many read while climbing the stairs.

The classrooms are equally regimented, especially for the younger students. Fifth-grade math teacher Lauren Shockley commands her classroom the way she once directed her defense as a soccer goalie at Rice University.

"There'll be no questions during this time," she told her students as they did their daily assignment.

Later, when a girl couldn't remember her multiplication tables during an oral presentation, Shockley let her fumble until she got the right answer.

"Three claps for . . . sticking through with it," Shockley said, and the class applauded in unison.

The grip loosens in the upper grades. A discussion in an eighth-grade English class about the meaning of "shackle" in "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" raged back and forth.

A few believed it meant "leg irons."

"Who's hating on my answer?" demanded one student who favored a different definition.

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