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The KIPP-ing Point

The KIPP-ing Point

On a business visit to Houston three years ago, Israeli real estate agent-turned-educator Eran Dubovi accepted a suggestion from Lee Wunsch, executive director of the city’s Jewish federation. Go see a certain public school in southwest Houston, Wunsch said. Dubovi went to the campus of KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program), flagship of a charter school network that has grown in 17 years from a single Houston inner-city classroom to 82 schools in 19 states and Washington, D.C., and met Michael Feinberg, the KIPP co-founder who described how a philosophy of rigorous tuition-free, open-enrollment education had changed the lives of low-income minority students, revolutionized public school education in the United States and turned KIPP into the country’s largest chain of public schools. “We were very Jewish Theological Seminary impressed,” says Dubovi, deputy managing director of the Leo Baeck Education Center, a prestigious Haifa school affiliated with the Reform movement. Dubovi decided to bring the KIPP model to Israel. If an initial $2 million to $3 million fundraising campaign succeeds, a KIPP school — the first outside the U.S. — will open a year from now. Geared to students from poor families, it will be open to Arabs as well as Jews, and serve as the pilot program for a network of similar schools Dubovi hopes to establish across Israel. “I can do it tomorrow if I have the money,” he says. The city of Nahariya, north of Haifa along the Mediterranean coast, has given the Leo Baeck Center (it will run the KIPP school) a run-down, under-renovation building in a high-crime, poor section of town that is populated by émigrés from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union and northern African countries. Israel’s Ministry of Education has pledged about 70 percent of the school’s startup costs (the school will follow the standard Israeli public school curriculum, with added emphasis on Judaism and “community involvement.”) Dubovi says he has delayed the school’s opening for a year in order to raise enough money to guarantee the school’s first decade of operations, enough to pay for the intensive after-school enrichment programs and above-standard teachers’ salaries that characterize KIPP schools in the States. The initial K-3 school in Nahariya will be “KIPP-inspired,” an independent public school that will adapt the KIPP principles — intensive education, small class sizes, strong teacher-student ties and parental involvement — to Israel’s informal culture, says Dubovi, who subsequently studied the KIPP model both in Houston and at the KIPP Stanford University School Leaders Program. “It’s not a replica of KIPP.” While the Baeck Center’s JCC has reached out for 30 years to Haifa’s poorer communities, the Nahariya school will be the 71-year-old Center’s first major outreach into Israel’s economically disadvantaged areas. “I don’t want it to be another regular Israeli school,” Dubovi says. “KIPP-Israel inspired schools will tackle chronic underachievement in the under-resourced periphery cities of Israel and inspire students to realize their abilities and strive for excellence through education, nurturing and enrichment,” according to the mission statement. Its goals: a high attendance rate, a low dropout rate, and preparation for students to enroll in college and qualify for army officer training programs. In other words, an Israeli version of the success realized by Feinberg and KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, alumni of Teach for America who met through Teach for America in the 1990s. “Together, they have produced the largest achievement gains for impoverished children ever seen in a single school network,” Jay Mathews wrote in the Washington Post earlier this year. KIPP has become legendary in educational circles in the U.S., profiled on “60 Minutes,” featured at the 2000 Republican National Convention, described in Mathews’ “Work Hard. Be Nice. How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America” (Algonquin Books, 2009). “Work hard, be nice” is the KIPP slogan, highlighted on the walls of the KIPP Houstonn campus. Mathews’ book tells how Feinberg and Levin, two idealistic Harvard graduates, products of urban Jewish families, overcame students’ hostility, administrators’ indifference and critics’ opposition to become educational entrepreneurs. KIPP is now financially supported by the nonprofit KIPP Foundation established by Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing chain. The Houston Chronicle reported last year that a planned expansion of the city’s KIPP schools, where there is a long waiting list for admission to seven existing schools, may create a “system that could rival the Houston Independent School District.” Levin grew up on the Upper East Side. Feinberg is a native of Chicago who wanted to play linebacker for the Chicago Bears. A six-week volunteer stint in 1991 teaching immigrant Ethiopian children at an absorption center in Netanya turned Feinberg on to teaching. “His Hebrew was rudimentary and they spoke little English, but the big guy from Chicago and the slender, big-eyed children from eastern Africa enjoyed one another’s company,” Mathews writes. Feinberg and Levin, recipients of the 2008 Presidential Citizens Medal from President George W. Bush, in May received the Charles Bronfman Prize, a $100,000 award given to people under age 50 “whose humanitarian work represents Jewish values.” “We’re trying to honor heroes for the next generation of heroes — people who are still young and trying to do things, so the next generation of Jews has people to look up to,” said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “Mike and Dave are challenging educators around the world to rethink educational policy,” Stephen Bronfman said on behalf of the prize’s founders. “With their audacity to confront years of educational neglect and push past those who embraced the status quo, these young visionaries are bringing about game-changing results.” The pair said they would share part of the prize money with the Israeli school. “That’s the thing any mensch would do,” says Feinberg, who is based in Houston. Levin, who moved to New York City to establish the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, now works as superintendent of the KIPP Infinity School in Harlem. “We are in a marketing war for the hearts and minds of the kids” who grew up with the Internet and iPods, Levin says. “You have to compete against these distractions.” “There’s nothing magical” about KIPP’s success — just commitment and hard work, says Feinberg, who received a royal reception when he went to Israel in March 2008 to promote the Nahariya school to mayors and government officials. “He was a superstar,” Dubovi says. The Israelis bought Feinberg’s vision of a transplanted KIPP school that can raise students’ expectations for themselves, Dubovi says. “This is exactly what is needed in Israel. You take the kids and you inspire them.” E-mail: