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Starting from scratch

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

(Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.