One Hundred KIPP Fifth Graders in a Single Classroom on the Floor for a Week Until They “Earned” Their Desks

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is the largest corporate charter school chain in the U. S, with 141 schools and 50,000 students in 20 states. KIPP was launched in 1994 by David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two former Ivy-Leaguers and Teach for America (TFA) corps members assigned to teach in Houston, where the first KIPP school was created. Since 2000 when KIPP students performed a skit at the Republican National Convention, KIPP has become the poster school model for “no excuses” education, and today it receives hundreds of millions in donations from corporations, corporate foundations, and venture philanthro-capitalists.

KIPP spends a great deal of money promoting its brand of total compliance segregated charter schools as the tough love, no excuses solution for schooling in urban communities disabled by poverty and the lack of hope. KIPP and its billionaire supporters contend that we cannot wait for an end to poverty to properly educate the children of the poor. No one I know would disagree with this premise, but everyone I know disagrees with KIPP’s conception of what “properly educate” means.

Apparently, KIPP sees no irony in requiring the poorest urban children who have received the least in life to earn everything at KIPP, from paychecks for good behavior and working hard, to the KIPP shirt, and, at some KIPPs, even the desks that children must earn their right to sit in for 8 to 10 hours a day.

You may ask yourself what your reaction would be if your fifth-grader came home every day for the first four days of school to tell you that she sat on the floor without a desk.

Or if you don’t have children, what do you think Michelle Obama would say her children came home telling her that they were not good enough to have a desk, or they had not proven that they could follow directions well enough, or sit quietly long enough, or walk a line straight enough, or track the teacher intently enough, or raise their hands quickly enough, or wait long enough to go to the bathroom, or that they had not worked hard enough?

Do you think Michelle Obama would encourage her husband, the President of the United States, to have his education people pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the support of this kind of school?

One of the KIPP teachers I interviewed for my forthcoming book on KIPP teaching had told me about students losing their desks as a form of punishment. He said that most of the one hour session devoted on late Friday afternoons for “team and family time” would “dissolve into the students sitting on the floor and writing lines, a hundred times, I will not disrespect our time with team and family, because maybe they didn’t transition in a straight enough line to team and family. Maybe they were talking too much.”

Another teacher told me about how desks were taken away at her KIPP school as a form of punishment for small or large offenses: “So at any given time you could go into a classroom and see from one to ten kids sitting in the back room or the whole class on the floor.”

Humiliating and awful and borderline abusive, indeed.

But I had heard nothing like the following account that tells of how during the first week of school 100 fifth-graders were packed into a single classroom without desks, where they sat the entire class time Monday through Thursday learning to earn the right to sit in a desk. It was only on Friday that the students were separated into three groups and sent to classrooms with desks. From the verbatim transcript:

TEACHER: One thing I did want to tell you was, we started school the middle of July. And they did something totally illegal. And I knew then that I didn’t want to work there anymore. For the fifth graders coming into the school for the first time, they sat a hundred fifth graders on the floor of one class in rows for a week, a hundred fifth graders in one classroom for a week until they could follow directions. And at that point, I said, why am I here? . . . .

INTERVIEWER: Let’s get back to the fifth graders sitting on the floor. [Crosstalk]. This was during the, what is sometimes referred to as the KIPP-notizing that happens during the first summer for fifth graders?

TEACHER: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And what do these children do all day if they were sitting on the floor?

TEACHER: They would sit there and do homework on the floor. They would fill in forms and pass them. And they had to all do it correctly, otherwise, they’d do it again and again and again. And so what we would do, by Thursday, all the teachers would vote in site, should we let them go into desks? In front of them, we had to vote. You know? And I voted yes, put them in desks. You know? It’s like treating like animals. They weren’t animals. They were children. And so by Friday, I think they figured, well, a week is long enough. You know? And so we all voted, yeah, let them go in the desks. And that’s how they decided to go in the desks.

INTERVIEWER: Did all the teachers have to vote yes before they were given desks?

TEACHER: Yeah. Yeah. But we were encouraged to vote yes. Is that a KIPP thing to do? I don’t know. But you wouldn’t do that ever in a public school.

INTERVIEWER: I’m sure you wouldn’t. I’ve heard of children sitting on the floor, but I haven’t heard of a hundred in a single [crosstalk] room.

TEACHER: It was a hundred. It was all the fifth graders in a classroom, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: And this is like a classroom designed for 30 desks?

TEACHER: Yes. They were stuffed in. They were stuffed in.

INTERVIEWER: How many teachers were in this room during this time?

TEACHER: Five. I think five teachers were there. And the principal would walk in every once and awhile.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So let me ask you this question. If I had been with you, either on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, what would I have seen happening during one of those days?

TEACHER: With me or with students or teachers?

INTERVIEWER: Well, if I had been in the classroom on one of those days, what would I have seen happening?

TEACHER: At first the kids, well, they have to do the flag salute of course. And then they have to take attendance. And the only time they stood up was during the flag salute and going out for recess, which they did go out for recess. Kids were trying to follow directions. I don’t think the directions were given for a fifth grader to quite understand, even though one teacher was really, really good. I don’t know. By Friday, they were frustrated. The kids were frustrated. You know? And maybe they were making them worried about being a part of the school that they wouldn’t pass, because we had a lot of kids who hadn’t passed in the public school so they went to KIPP. And so maybe they were worrying them to make sure that they would follow directions. And so they were worried. I think the kids were worried.

INTERVIEWER: They were worried that they weren’t going to get in or that they were going to have to stay there?

TEACHER: They were worried that they couldn’t ever follow directions. It was a mind game. I’ve seen this. It’s terrible what they did. It was [Crosstalk] what they did.

INTERVIEWER: What did they do?

TEACHER: Say that again.

INTERVIEWER: What did they do?

TEACHER: They did what they could. And even by Friday, they weren’t all following directions, but they said, go sit in a chair. We’ll give you desks.

INTERVIEWER: So when all these children were sitting there, they were sitting there at all times unless they were going to recess or going to lunch?

TEACHER: Right. And those were only, I think those were only minimum days also. So it wasn’t like eight hours. It was, like, four hours.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So they were there for half day.

TEACHER: Yeah, they were there for half day. You know? I don’t think they had PE, but they did have lunch and they did have recess.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So they were just on the floor for four hours. So when the children got their desks, were they sent into different classrooms so that they could [crosstalk]?

TEACHER: Yes, they were, three different classrooms, yes.

INTERVIEWER: And what was the reaction among students and among teachers?

TEACHER: Once they went to classroom?

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, once they got their desks.

TEACHER: They were a lot happier, because they had their own place to put their backpack. They had their own places to put books. They had their own place to put stuff. You know? They had their own space. And they needed that. They needed their own space. They needed to feel comfortable being an individual, not just being a classmate.

The question here that must be asked is what will it take to get the attention of those charged with the safety and welfare of children in order to bring an end to these horrors. This is not the first time such educational atrocities at KIPP have been documented. The most prominently-ignored series of incidents occurred in 2009 in Fresno (go here and read posts from the bottom up).

How long will we turn our backs on this kind of abuse? How long will we allow and support and celebrate this form of behavioral sterilization for poor children while ignoring and finding excuses for doing nothing about poverty? Will it take Amnesty International to intervene in these human rights abuses at America’s apartheid corporate schools for the poor?