[Rachel is interviewed in this new JFP article about Charter Schools in Mississippi.]

By Ward Schaefer

The Jackson Free Press–January 16, 2011

The students in John Bennetts’ second-grade class are being perfect sponges. Bennetts, a teacher at KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy, a charter school in Helena, Ark., is drilling the class on the difference between “explicit information” and “implicit information.” His students sit straight up in their chairs, heads forward, forearms crossed on their desks in front of them. KIPP, an acronym for the Knowledge Is Power Program, calls the position “sponge,” and students learn it when they first enter kindergarten. Bennetts is reviewing how to draw conclusions, or find implicit information, from a story.

“Explicit information is information that is—” he prompts.

“Right there!” his students chant back, bringing their hands up to pantomime quotation marks, then dropping them back into “sponge.”

“When we draw a conclusion, it is information that is—”

“Not right there!” they respond, crossing their arms in an X, drawing the air quotes, then returning their hands to their desks.

Every student wears the KIPP uniform: khaki pants, and either a gray sweatshirt—with the slogan, “Work hard. Be nice!” on the back—or a blue T-shirt, bearing a quote from Richard Steele: “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” One wall in the room displays vocabulary words with accompanying definitions and illustrations done by the students: “deviate,” “anticipate,” “abandon,” “transport.” A pennant from Bennetts’ alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, hangs by the door.

KIPP is a national network of charter schools, all sharing the same cheery, hard-work and sloganeering style evident in Bennetts’ classroom. Its approach pairs high expectations with greater time commitments from teachers and students—in the length of the school day and the school calendar. Founded in 1994, the organization has been remarkably successful in replicating its approach in 20 regions around the country.

In Mississippi, however, what KIPP is doing would be illegal. Mississippi has no law allowing for the creation of charter schools like KIPP, which open by securing a “charter,” or agreement with a school district or state educational authority to operate.

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