Diamond in the rough, but what is rough? Dirt roads, lack of privileges, splattered cow dung, having no idea what the future entails. Rough. But it’s all perspective. What may be rough to these children could be different than what is rough to me. The bright green and blue cement staircase reminded me of my own gold and red cement staircase. The red leather sofas were the exact replicas of our office sofas. The colored polo shirts for each key stage reminded me of my white, blue, red, and green polo shirts that represented my growth. The classrooms, the dynamic, the teachers, the students, it was all coming back to me. It was my beginning. It was KIPP. KIPP is Knowledge is Power Program. The first two schools began in 1994 in Texas and New York by Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin. The program was designed as a public charter school that taught kids with interactive learning with the outside world. We would go on trips to different part of the country. There was a common term amongst KIPPsters, “KIPPnotizing.” After certain while at KIPP, we would all think, respond, and be a certain way. It was revolutionary to the average public education. Our active participation, our questions about the world, and our eagerness to show what we learned brought many visitors. They would sit or stand in the back of the classrooms smiling and jotting things down in a notebook. On Friday the roles were switched, I was the visitor in the back with a hyper pen and notebook. I was watching instead of being watched. And I have never imagined that the roles would be switched in this way.
In some ways Riverside and KIPP were different. The architects of KIPP Academy Middle School (the first in America, along with its cousin in New York) consciously designed the school to resemble a factory. The main building had exposed pipes on the ceiling and a black tile floor. It was not unattractive, but the idea of churning kids out of this program was a stark contrast to the beginning mobile classrooms that KIPP started as. At Riverside the building in itself is an interactive learning experience. Starting from the multiple floors and how each has a balcony where I often looked down and studied how students connect with each other, teacher, and their surroundings, or how the classroom windows are just as present as the ceiling of the room. I was able to hear the birds outside, see the sunlight, and have an acute awareness of where I was. Another way Riverside and KIPP differ is the size of the school. As KIPP grew, the connection between students and the outside world became weaker. Resources were spread thin, and the experiences that I had that were so essential to growth were reduced or altogether taken out in order to have more schools in more places. I appreciated the small sizes of the classes and grades at Riverside and encourage it to stay tight in order to really make the connections that are needed when changing each other and the world.
Walking through Riverside reminded of a place that did change my life. It reminded of the beginning of KIPP, the connections, the stories. I hope it never loses that tightness.