Starting from scratch

A young principal spends her summer pounding the pavement in search of students to fill her new school.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

"I will arrive at KIPP He-ar-et-wood Ac-a-de-mee-a every day by 7:25 a.m. Monday- Friday." Fourth-grader Delia Bustamante struggles to read the student's "commitment to excellence" for the charter middle school she'll start later this month.

"We have a saying: If you're five minutes early, you're already late," says Sehba Zhumkhawala, founder, principal, and study-skills teacher for brand-new KIPP Heartwood Academy in San Jose's low-income Alum Rock district.

Delia's parents agree to get her to school by 7:20 a.m. Time is precious at KIPP schools (Knowledge Is Power Program) and the whole idea is to give students as much time in school as possible. The school day at KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a half day on alternate Saturdays.

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It may also extend late into the evenings. Delia can call her teachers till 10 every night, including on weekends and vacation days. "I'll also give you my cellphone number," Ms. Zhumkhawala says. "You can call me 24/7. You can call me at 3 a.m."

Zhumkhawala is known in Alum Rock as "The Woman Who Asks Questions." To recruit students for her school, she walks the streets asking, "Do you know any fourth-graders?" That's how she met Delia.

Public school principals generally don't spend their summers recruiting students for their schools. Most often they're appointed to schools where decisions about location and student enrollment have already been made and often even the hiring and firing of faculty is beyond their purview.

But with the birth of the charter-school movement has come a new kind of administrator with a new set of duties and concerns. Educated at top US schools, Zhumkhawala, at 28, is idealistic, ambitious, and eager to shake up the system. Before she can run her new school, however, she has had to create it from scratch - sell the community on the idea, raise money to supplement state funding, find a site, hire teachers, and, now, hardest of all, persuade parents to trust her with their children.

But if the charter-school movement means a sometimes staggering set of new responsibilities for principals like Zhumkhawala, its intent is to create options for families like the Garcia-Bustamantes.

Delia's parents attended elementary school in Mexico. Her father works in a warehouse. Her mother, Alicia Bustamante, makes and sells tamales.

"I don't want Delia to end up like us," says Delia's father, Geronimo Garcia. "She tells me she wants to be a lawyer or a doctor. I want her to be something."

If Delia and her family opt for the new KIPP school, it means she will work longer hours and be expected to meet higher standards than at the neighborhood public school. But Delia is just the kind of student - low-income, minority, and motivated - that Zhumkhawala is seeking.

Zhumkhawala's own background is completely different from that of the students she now hopes to recruit.

She grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in San Jose. Her father, who emigrated from India, worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley. Her mother, a college instructor in Pakistan, was a teacher. They sent her to private schools.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in English and psychology, Zhumkhawala joined Teach for America, which recruits bright graduates for two-year teaching stints.

For two years she taught English at a low-performing Houston middle school. "It was a great experience," she says. Five feet tall and slender, Zhumkhawala had no trouble keeping order. She respected her students, and they respected her. "Kids want strict, fair teachers," she says.

Later she taught at YES College Prep, a Houston charter school with a structured curriculum and extended school day. Many of the school's graduates - all minority and nearly all poor - went on to good colleges. "I saw it work," she says.

Zhumkhawala then earned a master's in education policy at Stanford. She worked for the KIPP Foundation in San Francisco, training principals in teaching students with limited English proficiency.

But training administrators for KIPP ultimately made Zhumkhawala long for a school of her own.

KIPP started in Houston 10 years ago, founded by two young teachers who believed low-income, minority students could excel with intensive teaching in fifth through eighth grade.

KIPP is based on common sense, says Zhumkhawala. "Set high expectations, spend more time in school, have kids make a choice and commit to that, focus on results, give the principal authority over hiring and spending. That's logical. It's not magic."

The success of the first KIPP school has inspired efforts at replication. With $25 million from Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of Gap Inc., KIPP has grown to 31 schools serving grades five through eight. Most KIPP schools are charters; all are public.

Seven new schools, including KIPP Heartwood Academy will open this summer. To date, 76 fifth-graders are enrolled at Zhumkhawala's school; she's hoping nine more will sign on before the mandatory summer session begins on July 26.

Before launching her school, Zhumkhawala worked hard to build relationships in Alum Rock, a perennially troubled district. She showed KIPP videos to community activists and district teachers and administrators. She took those who were interested to visit KIPP schools in nearby Oakland. With union and parent support, the charter was unanimously approved by the school board.

The superintendent of the local school district offered four classrooms - with desks, chairs, and white boards - at a middle school in the poorest neighborhood. The principal and teachers at a nearby elementary school - which ranks in the bottom 10th percentile statewide - advised parents to consider KIPP, even though it would reduce the elementary school's enrollment and funding.

Zhumkhawala usually makes one home visit to discuss the school, then returns for a two-hour visit to go over the commitment agreement that the student, parent, and principal will sign.

"If I can't see the family at home because they're living in a shelter, I'll meet [them] at McDonald's or Starbucks," she says.

Zhumkhawala guarantees parents that children who work hard will succeed in college. KIPP Heartwood will help graduates get into good high schools, public or private, and will offer college counseling and test preparation.

KIPP classes average 30 students, which makes it possible to pay teachers 15 to 20 percent more for longer work hours. But it won't all be hard work, Zhumkhawala tells her recruits. "We're going to have fun."

But fun is not what brings Josie Ramirez to a meeting with Zhumkhawala.

Her son Zachary Alvarez's report cards go up and down in ways she doesn't understand. He needs a full day of teaching - not an after-school "intervention" program, she says. "For my son, he needs structure."

She likes KIPP's work ethic. Friends and relatives tell her that KIPP's schedule is too intense, but she's seen too many children drop out or become gang members. A receptionist in a pediatrician's office, Ms. Ramirez sees teenagers injured in fights. She wants better for her son.

But for Zach, Zhumkhawala's school is not a choice. "What if I don't like [the new school]?" he asks his mother. "That's not an option," she tells him.

Like it or not, he's going.

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