Bekah S. McNeel

Curiosity. Gratitude. Grit. Optimism. Self-control. Zest.

Each word serves as a centerpiece for one of the breakfast tables at the First Friday breakfast at KIPP Aspire Academy, a college preparatory middle school in Beacon Hill. After a short introduction to the school and testimonies of its storied successes, a line of middle school students appears, each holding a placard with the virtues printed in bold. Most of them are wearing university t-shirts and uniform outerwear.

Carlos Sanchez shows off his physics roller coaster at KIPP Aspire.
Carlos Sanchez shows off his physics roller coaster at KIPP Aspire.

The intent of the placards is to sort us into tour groups. As in: “If you are seated at the zest table, find the student holding the zest card.” The effect, however, is more profound. Looking into the bright eyes behind the “optimism” placard, or the square shoulders holding up “grit,” it’s easy to feel the tingly sensation of inspiration.

I find my way to “optimism,” where two boys firmly shake my hand, look me in the eye and introduce themselves as Daniel and Carlos. Our tour group includes some military servicemen and women in uniform. By the time we reach the main hallway where class is in session, they are clearly impressed.

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, is a nationwide network of free, open-enrollment charter schools targeting inner city or low-income areas. Brought to San Antonio in 2003, four campuses currently operated inside Loop 410 and another on the way this fall. KIPP Aspire was the first campus in San Antonio, followed by the high school, KIPP University Prep in 2009. The second middle school, KIPP Camino Academy, opened in 2010 and in 2012, KIPP opened an elementary school, Un Mundo. KIPP Esperanza, set to open in the fall, will be a dual language academy starting with kindergarten and adding a grade each year as their inaugural class advances.

It’s difficult to get a sense of academics in a walk-through tour, but character is coursing through the halls like electric currents.

“There are no locks on the lockers because we have integrity,” Carlos points out, beaming with pride.

We pass classrooms of students that don’t seem to notice us tromping by their open doors. One class sings multiplication tables to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In another class, students are look at their teacher with the kind of rapt attention most of us grant only to our physicians or loan officers. Our guides explain that students are taught to “track the speaker.” Like a laser beam.

KIPP Aspire
KIPP Aspire

KIPP’s classroom and curricula structure is guided by research showing that character is a stronger indicator of a student’s future success than test scores or fact mastery. One of those “executive function” character traits is based on the famous Stanford University experiment using marshmallows to demonstrate delayed gratification. “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow Yet” has become a campus slogan.

The character-based model shows up again in the community service requirement, which students must fulfill if they are to attend the end-of-year field trip. Each year the destination of the trip gets more momentous. During their first year at KIPP Aspire, fifth graders spend a day at the YMCA.  Eighth graders get a trip to Washington DC.

This sort of incentive, aimed at delayed gratification, creates an environment conducive to teaching the values of college readiness and career planning. In fact, one reason that KIPP has become such a favorite among business leaders is that it promotes the values they are looking for in employees: Hard work, ethics, and long hours.

"Don't Eat the Marshmallow, yet" mosaic teaching delayed gratification.
“Don’t Eat the Marshmallow yet” mosaic teaching delayed gratification.

KIPP students rack up 50% more school hours than their traditional public school counterparts.  They are in school from 7:30 am to 4pm. They have Saturday school. They go to school during the summer. Those extra hours pay off.

Teachers play no small part in this. KIPP teachers put in loads of extra hours as well, and keep school-issued cell phones on them at all times to give lifework (homework, renamed to stress its importance) help. At the beginning of the grading period, they make a pact with their students, a goal they will try to achieve as a team. KIPP teachers set the bar high and the students bond as they strive to attain it. When one class made the pact to have perfect lifework completion, all eyes turned to a student who was the obvious weakest link.

The student explained that he had nowhere to do his lifework, because his house was too noisy. His classmates responded with compassion and, yes, grit. They could empathize with the struggles of crowded and noisy homes, so they offered their best practices.

“I lock myself in the bathroom,” one girl said.

“I roll down the window and stay in the car,” said another.

Such stories highlight just how much KIPP students are accomplishing on their climb to college. Many come into KIPP Aspire two to three grade-levels behind their peers. Contrary to the popular belief that KIPP only selects the best and brightest, many incoming students are near the bottom of their class in public school.

By eighth grade things have changed – 87% go on to college. KIPP Aspire consistently ranks near the top of San Antonio schools for middle school academics.  It’s one thing for graduating seniors to go to college, a different thing entirely to hold on to students from 8th grade until that senior year.

Mark Larson, CEO of KIPP San Antonio, and Luzdivina Lozano, School Leader at KIPP Un Mundo, congratulate our Kindergartener and student speaker, Josie Clemente, for a job well done. Photo Courtesy of KIPP San Antonio
Mark Larson, CEO of KIPP San Antonio, and Luzdivina Lozano, School Leader at KIPP Un Mundo, congratulate our Kindergartener and student speaker, Josie Clemente, for a job well done. Photo Courtesy of KIPP San Antonio

Mark Larson, president of KIPP San Antonio, has one goal while walking the block in low-income neighborhoods, knocking on doors, recruiting students:

“Our biggest hope is to create a school where every single student who walks through the doors is able to go to college,” Larson said.

Once students reach college, however, that is not the end of KIPP. Studies show that minorities and low-income students have a 50% college drop out rate.

“We’re not willing to accept that. We believe we can impact (that statistic),” Larson said.

“KIPP Through College” is an initiative to change the goal from college admission to college graduation. Three full time staff members at KIPP University Prep match students with colleges that fit their aptitude and interest. Rather than have the student apply to the most prestigious school, they look for schools where the students will most likely attain a degree. Those staff members then provide counseling and support throughout the alumni’s college career.

Momentum is building, and across the country twenty universities are reaching a critical mass of KIPP alumni.  These schools can become KIPP College Partners, and facilitate support communities on campus for former “KIPPsters,” as students are called.

Most of the students at KIPP are aware of the chance they’ve been given, which is why so many are willing to work so hard for such long hours.

Something else happens as well, I observed this in my tour guides, Carlos and Daniel: A culture develops. They are proud of their long hours. Proud of their integrity. Proud of their academic accomplishments.

On paper this environment should feel like military school, but instead KIPP feels like an academic fraternity. Here it’s hip to be a square.

And to think, all of this is happening inside of Loop 410.

As Mark Larson himself so aptly puts it, “These kids are proving what is possible in inner city education.”

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Related Stories:

Understanding the School Choice Debate: A Primer

Downtown Schools Hawthorne and Lamar Say ‘Yes’ to Community Involvement

Travis Early College High School: A Golden Opportunity for Students

Urban Fabric: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Families

All-Girl College Prep Turning Heads in San Antonio, Producing Tomorrow’s Leaders

Open Cloud Academy Open For Business: Bridging IT Employment Gap

Bonham Academy: A Parent-Driven Success Story

Avatar photo

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.