Changed By the Bell

By George Ramirez, KIPP Alumnus, KIPP NYC
This post was first published by the Yale Herald.

Just a week after New Year’s, I attended the second annual KIPP Alumni Summit. KIPP is an acronym for the Knowledge is Power Program, a network of public charter schools which, for nearly two decades, has been educating underserved youth in cities across the country. One of the most highly anticipated events of the Summit was a speech by David Levin, one of the co-founders of KIPP.

Unlike many of Mr. Levin’s speeches, this one was brief. “If all of us in this room were to help 10 people in their lifetime and tell those 10 people to help another 10 people, we could change the world in a matter of years,” he told a room of college students and graduates. We were all nodding our heads like we were back in the fifth grade. It was a simple idea, like the mantra “Work hard. Be nice.” which every KIPP student across the country has heard too many times to count.

The most straightforward mission of KIPP is to help close the achievement gap. This goal rings true for policy makers and education reformers, but for KIPP students themselves—like me—the experience is about something else. KIPP isn’t about just being the recipients of a movement for change; it’s about creating change of our own. It’s about starting the kind of chain reaction that Mr. Levin believes is possible.

The day I was told I was attending KIPP was the first time I ever felt like I had a chance at making my own path to my future. After signing the Commitment to Excellence Form, which every KIPP student, faculty member, and parent has to sign, I immediately knew that I was part of something different. “I will work, think, and behave in the best way I know how, and I will do whatever it takes for me and my fellow students to learn.” I read and signed on the dotted line. These are the words that told me that I was in control of my destiny.

I got lucky to be selected among the few 10-year olds applying to go to KIPP Academy in New York City. Until I got to KIPP, I don’t think there was anything to set me apart from the many immigrants in the South Bronx. I moved to the U.S. from Ecuador when I was five. When I got here I was placed into a public elementary school down the street, where I attempted to learn English in a bilingual classroom, got into a few fights, and was constantly surrounded by adults who directly and indirectly told me and my classmates I was getting nowhere. “Why do I even bother trying?” I remember hearing my second grade teacher yelling over my rowdy class. “It’s not like you’ll actually make anything of yourselves.”

In a way, anything that got me out of my public school would have felt like a miracle. So in some sense, KIPP started out just as an escape. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that KIPP saved my life.

Middle school at KIPP was not easy. I never had to do any work at my elementary school, because it doesn’t take a lot of work to fail. Homework was never assigned, and when it was, no one ever checked it. I was shocked on my first day of classes at KIPP when I was told to stand in the back of my classroom for rolling my eyes at my math teacher, and even more surprised when I was actually assigned homework that would be checked thoroughly the next day.

My days were long, getting to school at 7:25 a.m. and staying until five or sometimes six in the evening. I arrived home to hours of homework and went to school on Saturdays and for a couple of weeks over the summer. I got used to being asked to stand in the hallways for several minutes between classes, being preached to by my teachers.

These “sermons” were filled with the distinctive vocabulary of KIPP: Teachers told us to focus on “assigning ourselves” and “following directions,” and above all to perfect our “self-control.” I learned to appreciate this tough love. The teachers I had at KIPP were truly inspirational: not because they were preaching at us, but because they were challenging us to become better people.

At KIPP, I learned how to play the violin, to sing my multiplication tables (yes, sing!), and, in the course of it all, to believe in the power of an education. One of the best teachers I ever had was my eighth grade history teacher, Mr. Mitch Brenner. I can remember his first lesson during a hot summer day, while most kids were just heading off to play basketball or swim in the local pool. “What is good? What is bad? How can we be sure of this?” he asked us. I was used to classes where the point was to get the right answer. Now, I was just supposed to be thinking critically about the right questions.

Mr. Brenner has been there for every high and low since KIPP, and he’s even helped me with all my history papers I’ve written since his class, including the one I’m working right now. He is only one of KIPP’s many teachers that are willing to do whatever it takes to help their students succeed. Teachers at KIPP teach you for as long as you need them, not just as long as the class period lasts.

By the time I got to the eighth grade, I felt that I had worked as hard as possible to try to get out of the Bronx. KIPP helped me apply to many boarding schools. Paranoid that I wasn’t going to get in anywhere, I applied to almost every boarding school on the east coast, and got accepted to many of them.

When I went to Spring Revisit Weekend at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Wallingford, CT, I knew that I wanted to be there. I felt like I needed to be in a place that felt as tightly knit as KIPP, and Choate was the closest thing I found. At first glance, of course, these two places seem completely different. So, it was easy to forget that in the simplest sense, they were both college prep programs. Both are about building communities where students can succeed.

For me, KIPP and Choate were eye-opening experiences. Both schools were something brand new. Many people had told me that Choate students would be really preppy, obnoxiously rich, and too smart for their own good — okay, some students were and are – but I still felt right at home. At first, I was just amazed to know white people who weren’t my teachers; not only did I have friends who weren’t Hispanic or African American, I met kids from around the world.

I can still remember my first lunch, where I sat with students from South Carolina, Texas, Kenya, Colombia, and South Korea, and discussed Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. We all felt unprepared for the coming quiz. As we sat together trying to remember what the whole novel was about, we eventually accepted that we were as prepared as we were going to be, and started talking about how quirky our teachers were.

Even with all the confidence and knowledge that KIPP and Choate had provided for me, I never thought of myself as someone who would go to Yale, but after visiting and consulting with the many people I was blessed to have met at KIPP and at Choate, I decided to give it a try. Of course I doubted myself along the way; I wasn’t a violin or piano prodigy, the school president, or an international chess champion like many of my peers I was privileged to be in class with at Choate. But somewhere along the way, I remembered that I had spent my whole life pushing myself in an attempt to prove society wrong. In some sense, I felt that I owed it to myself, to KIPP, and to fighting the achievement gap. I had been fighting my whole life making choices—and changes—that didn’t seem possible. There was no reason to stop choosing the best possible future.

I applied Early Action to Yale. Self-control had been hammered in hard at KIPP, and the day admissions were posted, I didn’t check my decision because I had to focus on a calculus test the next day. The funny thing was that as soon as I saw Handsome Dan singing and welcoming me to the Yale Class of 2015, I called Mr. Brenner, ran to my advisors office and then my college counselor’s before I even thought to call my parents, because those were the people who helped me most to my path to Yale.

It was in this moment, sharing my happiness with Mr. Brenner, that I felt like the change I was making for myself was also a change for KIPP, and maybe a change for education. Here at Yale, just like at all the other schools I’ve been to, I often focus on the basics: Word hard. Be nice. But I try not to forget the bigger picture: Make Change.

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