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Education Innovator to Speak on "The Charter School Challenge," Feb. 5

Dave Levin, the co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, will speak on the subject, "The Charter School Challenge: Does Innovation Come with a Price?" at the Liman Student Associates Speaker Series on Tuesday, February 5 at 6:00 p.m. The talk is in Room 121 at the Law School and is free and open to the public.

Education is a top priority of both local and state government. In his recent State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush spoke of how Republicans and Democrats had successfully passed education reform legislation in the last year. But he added that "there is more to do," and he mentioned programs to improve early childhood education and teacher training.

The Liman Student Associate Fellows, a group of YLS students who administer a speaker series under the auspices of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, also chose education as an issue that needs more exploration and discussion. They decided to invite a speaker to YLS who could address some of the questions raised by efforts to reform the public education system.

One of the YLS students, Cyd Fremmer '04, had visited an innovative charter school in Houston, Texas, called KIPP Houston, when she was herself a teacher in Teach for America. KIPP stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program and uses a regimen of high standards, long hours, and unconventional practices to improve the learning habits of underprivileged middle school students. Dave Levin, one of two young men who founded the school in 1994, is the speaker the Liman Student Associates decided to invite.

On her visit to KIPP, Fremmer says that she was initially apprehensive about what she had heard were "harsh" tactics. For instance, one punishment used at KIPP is social ostracism. Students who fail to perform their assignments can be forced to stand in the back of the classroom and not talk to their peers for a period of time. They also have to write a letter of apology to be readmitted to the class. KIPP calls this being "on the porch."

All students who enter KIPP do so voluntarily, and parents, teachers, and students sign contracts at the beginning of the year outlining what each party is responsible for. When a student fails to turn in homework, the teacher contacts the parent. In addition, students receive KIPP paychecks for their academic achievements, with which they can buy school supplies and treats. KIPP focuses on results--both in terms of test scores and sending their pupils on to college.

Fremmer found her visit to KIPP Houston "intense" and found the program "really impressive." She noted a "culture of respect and learning" at Kipp and thought that the students generally had learned more discipline than her own public school students. Indeed, KIPP Houston has been recognized as an Exemplary School by the Texas Education Agency every year since its opening.

Dave Levin opened another KIPP school in the Bronx, New York, which has become the borough's highest performing middle school in reading and math scores. Levin also joined with other partners to form KIPP National, which is recruiting teachers to found their own KIPP-style academies around the country. Such schools have already opened in Washington, D.C., and in Gaston, North Carolina--with ten more scheduled to open next year.

With all of KIPP's success, the innovative program still raises questions of how such a school "fit[s] into a traditional notion of what the government's role is," says Fremmer. Charter schools like KIPP offer new approaches but also take control out of the government's hands. Many policy questions--such as what standards such schools should meet or how closely they should be regulated--remain unanswered.

The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, established in 1997, honors the memory of Arthur Liman '57, whose distinguished career in both the private and public sector personified the ideal of commitment to public service.