Education

KIPP Forces 5th Graders to 'Earn' Desks By Sitting On the Floor For a Week

One hundred 10-year-olds spent the first week of school sitting on the floor. What was it they were supposed to have learned?

Photo Credit: Dereje via Shutterstock.com

The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is the largest corporate charter school chain in the U. S, with 141 schools and 50,000 students in 20 states. KIPP was launched in 1994 by David Levin and Michael Feinberg, two former Ivy Leaguers and Teach for America (TFA) corps members assigned to teach in Houston, where the first KIPP school was created. Since 2000, when KIPP students performed a skit at the Republican National Convention, KIPP has become the poster school model for “no excuses” education, and today it receives hundreds of millions in donations from corporations, corporate foundations and venture philanthro-capitalists.

KIPP spends a great deal of money promoting its brand of total compliance, segregated charter schools as the “tough love, no excuses” solution for schooling in urban communities disabled by poverty and lack of hope. KIPP and its billionaire supporters contend that we cannot wait for an end to poverty to properly educate the children of the poor. No one I know would disagree with this premise, but everyone I know disagrees with KIPP's conception of what "properly educate" means.

KIPP requires the poorest urban children, those who have received the least in life, to earn everything at KIPP, from paychecks for good behavior and working hard to the very shirts they wear. At some KIPPs, children must even earn their right to sit at a desk (rather than on the floor) for 8 to 10 hours a day.

What would your reaction would be if your fifth-grader came home every day for the first four days of school to tell you she sat on the floor without a desk? What do you think Michelle Obama would say if her children came home telling her they were not good enough to have a desk, or that they had not proven they could follow directions well enough, or sit quietly long enough, or walk a line straight enough, or track the teacher intently enough, or raise their hands quickly enough, or wait long enough to go to the bathroom, or that they had not worked hard enough to earn decent treatment?

Do you think Michelle Obama would encourage President Obama to have his education people pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the support of this kind of school?

One KIPP teacher told me that students lose their desks as a form of punishment. He said most of the one hour session devoted on late Friday afternoons for "team and family time" would "dissolve into the students sitting on the floor and writing lines, 100 times—'I will not disrespect our time with team and family'— because maybe they didn’t transition in a straight enough line to team and family. Maybe they were talking too much."

Another teacher told me how desks were taken away at her KIPP school as a form of punishment for small or large offenses: "So at any given time you could go into a classroom and see from one to 10 kids sitting in the back room or the whole class on the floor."

It seems humiliating and abusive. But I had heard nothing like the following account telling of how, during the first week of school, 100 fifth-graders were packed into a single classroom without desks, where they sat the entire class time Monday through Thursday, learning to earn the right to sit in a desk. It was only on Friday that the students were separated into three groups and sent to classrooms with desks. From the verbatim transcript:

Card ID: 1262

TEACHER: One thing I did want to tell you was, we started school the middle of July. And they did something totally illegal. And I knew then that I didn’t want to work there anymore. For the fifth-graders coming into the school for the first time, they sat 100 fifth-graders on the floor of one class in rows for a week, 100 fifth-graders in one classroom for a week until they could follow directions. And at that point, I said, why am I here?....

INTERVIEWER: Let’s get back to the fifth-graders sitting on the floor. [Crosstalk]. This was during the, what is sometimes referred to as the KIPP-notizing that happens during the first summer for fifth-graders?

TEACHER: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: And what do these children do all day if they were sitting on the floor?

TEACHER: They would sit there and do homework on the floor. They would fill in forms and pass them. And they had to all do it correctly, otherwise, they’d do it again and again and again. And so what we would do, by Thursday, all the teachers would vote in site, should we let them go into desks? In front of them, we had to vote. You know? And I voted yes, put them in desks. You know? It’s like treating like animals. They weren’t animals. They were children. And so by Friday, I think they figured, well, a week is long enough. You know? And so we all voted, yeah, let them go in the desks. And that’s how they decided to go in the desks.

INTERVIEWER: Did all the teachers have to vote yes before they were given desks?

TEACHER: Yeah. Yeah. But we were encouraged to vote yes. Is that a KIPP thing to do? I don't know. But you wouldn’t do that ever in a public school.

INTERVIEWER: I’m sure you wouldn’t. I’ve heard of children sitting on the floor, but I haven’t heard of 100 in a single room.

TEACHER: It was 100. It was all the fifth-graders in a classroom.

INTERVIEWER: And this is like a classroom designed for 30 desks?

TEACHER: Yes. They were stuffed in. They were stuffed in.

INTERVIEWER:  How many teachers were in this room during this time?

TEACHER: Five. I think five teachers were there. And the principal would walk in every once in a while.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So let me ask you this question. If I had been with you, either on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, what would I have seen happening during one of those days?

TEACHER: With me or with students or teachers?

INTERVIEWER: Well, if I had been in the classroom on one of those days, what would I have seen happening?

TEACHER: At first the kids, well, they have to do the flag salute of course. And then they have to take attendance. And the only time they stood up was during the flag salute and going out for recess, which they did go out for recess. Kids were trying to follow directions. I don't think the directions were given for a fifth-grader to quite understand, even though one teacher was really, really good. I don't know. By Friday, they were frustrated. The kids were frustrated. You know? And maybe they were making them worried about being a part of the school that they wouldn’t pass, because we had a lot of kids who hadn't passed in the public school so they went to KIPP. And so maybe they were worrying them to make sure that they would follow directions. And so they were worried. I think the kids were worried.

INTERVIEWER: They were worried that they weren’t going to get in or that they were going to have to stay there?

TEACHER: They were worried that they couldn’t ever follow directions. It was a mind game. I’ve seen this. It’s terrible what they did....

INTERVIEWER: So when all these children were sitting there, they were sitting there at all times unless they were going to recess or going to lunch?

TEACHER: Right. And those were only, I think those were only minimum days also. So it wasn’t like eight hours. It was, like, four hours.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So they were there for half day.

TEACHER: Yeah, they were there for half day. You know? I don't think they had PE, but they did have lunch and they did have recess.

INTERVIEWER: OK. So they were just on the floor for four hours. So when the children got their desks, were they sent into different classrooms so that they could [crosstalk]?

TEACHER: Yes, they were, three different classrooms, yes.

INTERVIEWER: And what was the reaction among students and among teachers?

TEACHER: Once they went to classroom?

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, once they got their desks.

TEACHER: They were a lot happier, because they had their own place to put their backpack. They had their own places to put books. They had their own place to put stuff. You know? They had their own space. And they needed that. They needed their own space. They needed to feel comfortable being an individual, not just being a classmate.

This is not the first time such educational atrocities at KIPP have been documented. The most prominently ignored series of incidents occurred in 2009 in Fresno (read the posts here from the bottom up).

How long will we turn our backs on this kind of abuse? How long will we allow and support and celebrate this form of behavioral sterilization for poor children, while ignoring and finding excuses for doing nothing about poverty?

An earlier version of this article appeared at Schools Matter.

James Horn is professor of educational leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is an education blogger at Schools Matter and has published widely on issues related to education reform and social justice in education.