‘No Excuses’ Kids Go to College

The C in linguistics proved to Rebecca Mercado that college was going to be different.

“It was the first time I had ever received a grade lower than a B, and it was upsetting,” admits Mercado, a biochemistry and cell biology major at the University of California, San Diego. The first in her family to attend a four-year college, Mercado was a strong student dating all the way back to her days in middle school at San Diego’s KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy. Perhaps as a result, she was “a little more cocky than I should have been” when arriving on campus for freshman year. Like many freshmen, Mercado experienced the distraction of being on her own for the first time, which took a toll on her grades. Holding down a job while taking more classes than she could handle didn’t help. “It all came crashing down on top of me,” Mercado says. Freshman year was “a big dose of reality,” she says.

Here’s another one: statistically speaking, Mercado might have been voted “Least Likely to Succeed” at birth. Low-income black and Hispanic students are by far the least likely U.S. students to graduate from high school and attend a four-year college. Those who are accepted to college are least likely to stick around and earn a degree. For each one who earns a bachelor’s degree, 11 fall short somewhere along the line, giving students like Mercado a mere 8 percent chance of graduating from college.

Mercado persists. Reenergized after a summer internship with the KIPP Foundation in Chicago, she is back on campus for the fall semester of 2012. She credits the habits of mind and encouragement she received in middle school, and the contacts she maintains five years later with KIPP teachers and administrators, for propelling her forward. “This year I’m coming in with a clear head. I’m more focused on my classes and what I want to accomplish. I’m going to do better,” she says. Her delivery communicates not hope or aspiration but conviction. “Nothing is going to keep me from graduating,” she insists, adding for emphasis, “nothing.”

Mercado’s story—both her struggle and her determination— will be repeated over the next several years on college campuses across the U.S. At one level, she’s just one more kid trying to pass biology, graduate, and make something of herself. But as the product of a KIPP school, Mercado is at the vanguard of a rapidly growing class of students whose success or failure could make or break the reputation of a closely watched group of charter schools and the sometimes-controversial, muscular brand of education they have pioneered. In 2015, more than 10,000 students from KIPP and other major charter-school highfliers will be on college campuses across the United States.

The Coming KIPP Bubble

You can’t play the ingenue forever.

For much of its brief history, there has been something of a halo over the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). Founded in Houston in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, a pair of Teach For America corps members, KIPP now has more than 100 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C. It is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids. It’s this last feature that led KIPP and the others to be branded “No Excuses” schools, a label not universally embraced within the category.

The reputation of the No Excuses model is complicated and often divisive among professional educators. Outside the education bubble in the broader public mind, however, these high-flying charters are much-adored, attractive young upstarts, and the antidote to the dark, dispiriting “dropout factories” of media caricature. For years, a central motif of the feel-good narrative surrounding No Excuses charter schools has been their college acceptance rates. Houston-based YES Prep, for example, has made much of the fact that 100 percent of their graduating seniors have been accepted to college; more than 90 percent are the first in their family to attend a four-year college. The original cohort of KIPP students attended college at more than double the rate of their demographic peers: bracing, affirming, “It’s Being Done” data points to warm the gap-closing hearts of ed reform hawks.

The April 2011 release of KIPP’s College Completion Report changed the No Excuses narrative almost instantly from “college acceptance” to “college completion.” A bold and laudable exercise in transparency, the report gave ammunition to KIPP’s boosters and critics alike. Thirty-three percent of the earliest cohorts of KIPP middle-school students were found to have graduated college within six years, four times the average rate of students from underserved communities and slightly higher than the figure (31 percent) for all U.S. students. It was a clear and unambiguous accomplishment. Yet two out of three former KIPP students were failing to reach the bar, however audacious, that KIPP itself had established as “the essential stepping stone to rewarding work, a steady income, self-sufficiency and success.” The affirming image of smiling, cap-and-gown–bedecked ghetto kids graduating high school and heading off to college and bright horizons beyond lost a bit of its luster.

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