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“Is it hard to educate kids in poverty? Yes. So what? Let’s do it.”

Today was my first visit to a KIPP school. I didn’t even know what KIPP stands for. In case you don’t know either, I’ll save you the search on Google. It stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. Check out this video.

As I met with people across the state last fall, a lot of people told me about KIPP:ENC, but many of them did not think there was much EdNC could learn from the KIPP experience as far as applying lessons learned to public schools. This was our first visit of many as the school moves into Durham (opening in fall 2015), but it sure looked to me like this school is serving the laboratory function envisioned for charters.

KIPP:ENC raises private dollars for the infrastructure of the schools and for things like transportation, but other than that, Tammi Sutton, the executive director, is intent on relying on the state support she receives to educate her students so that the model is replicable.

Today, I want to give you a sense of the school with a photo essay. I want you to see what we saw. Our research will come later.

This is the entrance to the high school founded in 2005.

From the moment you walk in the door, you know college is the goal.


School-based health care, including psychiatry, is offered on the campus.


Unlike many charters, transportation is provided.


And, because the school day lasts from 8 to 5, lunch is provided along with a school garden.

The primary school was founded in 2012.

Students participate. The importance of black history is infused throughout the school and curriculum and not reserved for Black History Month in February.

Students are organized.


There is a focus on enrichment, especially music, with kindergarteners exposed to violin and keyboard.


Hard work is the norm.


The middle school was founded in 2001 for grades 5 to 8.


Open cubbies in fifth grade teach integrity. 


These students are learning about angles, using their arms to demonstrate knowledge of the angle.


Teachers and students wave their fingers, as Mya is doing here, to send love as a student struggles to answer a question or wrap their minds around a concept.


Did I mention that it is just a lot of hard work?


Students can wear KIPP gear or college gear to school. Personalities are clearly expressed through shoe choice.

Early on when I met her, Sutton says, “There is no magic. There is no special sauce.”


By the end of the day, I think Sutton might be the special sauce, but she immediately gives credit to the leadership, the teachers, the parents, and of course the students. She talks about her “pride” of students, and she is like the mama lion. The first thing you see when you check out the website? Knowledge. College. Power. Freedom.

Sutton simply does not believe that the demographics of her students should define their destiny, and she absolutely believes that she can get any student that walks through the door into college regardless of poverty, regardless of disability, regardless of race, regardless of anything. As she says, “there are no ifs, ands, or buts — we know they can all go to college.”

Twelve of the alums are back teaching at KIPP in North Carolina. According to the students we talked to, teachers are available 24/7 to answer questions by phone or email. Mya told me I had to come back to meet Mr. Bills who teaches pre-calculus. Noting the countless hours he has spent being available, she says, “He loves this school, he loves us.”

There are consequences. If a student doesn’t meet expectations, then they don’t “earn” the cool class trips. Really cool class trips all wrapped around college visits — Atlanta, New York, DC.

There is candid conversation to get these kids from rural North Carolina ready for the reality of college. They will meet people that have never met a black person. They will meet a vegan and need to know what that means. It’s about navigation. Navigating college leads to navigating the real world.

The students are released at 2pm on Fridays, and the staff has professional development from 2-5pm. Professional development is therapeutic for teachers and provides an opportunity for the staff to realign themselves with the mission in preparation for the week ahead. During the spring, on Friday afternoons, the staff goes door-to-door to let the poorest communities — from housing projects to trailer parks — know about the school and how to apply.

During Saturday School, KIPP:ENC invites public school teachers to come to KIPP for professional development.

Sutton says the only secret is a laser focus on the mission of getting kids to college plus professional development plus relationships with parents and students.

Healthy schools questions

1. Are we serving the children who need us?  
2. Are our students staying with us?  
3. Are our students progressing and achieving academically?  
4. Are our students climbing the mountain to and through college?  
5. Are we building a sustainable people model?  
6. Are we building a sustainable financial model?  

100 percent of the seniors for seven years in a row have been accepted to a four year college.

Worried about the dropout rate of freshman in college, the school finds graduates of KIPP who are juniors or seniors at colleges and universities to serve as college ambassadors. The older students help the freshman navigate college.

Sutton is not afraid to handle the tough questions. She knows people think her school feels like a jail. She invites you to come visit and see for yourself and talk to the students. To me, it felt like a lot of hard work, but nothing about it felt like a jail.

She knows people think she pays her teachers more. She does. But she cuts a lot of costs to make that happen. This is not a one-to-one school. Check out the classroom photos. You don’t see devices and laptops. And she points out her $89 lunch tables that she purchased at Walmart. Expenses are evaluated relative to the desire to get these kids to college.

She knows people think she expels students to keep her college-going rates up.  A staff person describes a student to me who should have been expelled and the lengths to which Sutton went not to expel the student. The student graduated and went on to go to college.

A first generation college graduate herself, Sutton says her ultimate goal is for KIPP to go out of business because no one in the public schools is underserved any more. In the meantime, she believes changing education will change poverty in the communities she serves.

KIPP:ENC invites hard questions, and we plan to continue asking them. What questions do you have for Sutton or KIPP:ENC when we go back?

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.