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KIPP Inspire Academy opens its doors -- and opportunity -- to 90 new students

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2009 - A new world of learning began to unfold today for about 90 bright-eyed children -- all students in the inaugural class of KIPP Inspire Academy, a middle school that opened its doors this morning on the South Side.

Although some of these youngsters already are accustomed to hard work, others will be getting their first taste of what it means to attend KIPP: being exposed to a challenging curriculum, plenty of homework, lots of encouragement and no excuses for not eventually performing at grade level and beyond.

KIPP Inspire in St. Louis is the latest addition to the Knowledge Is Power Program's network of about 60 schools nationwide. Today's opening marks the second KIPP school in Missouri. One already is operating in Kansas City. KIPP Inspire holds classes in a refurbished school adjacent to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, 2647 Ohio Avenue, in the Fox Park neighborhood. The school will add a grade a year through eighth grade and eventually serve 340 students.

The Beacon will follow two of these students during the first year of the KIPP program, showing readers whether a handful of dedicated teachers and school leaders can gradually transform even low-performers into eager learners. KIPP has a reputation for being one of the top public school systems in the nation. Its schools are known for academic success for all its students, not only the best and the brightest. Its inaugural class here includes students from across the city, and some undoubtedly will be tougher to educate than others.

Terrance Wynn

Take Terrance Wynn, 12, who formerly attended a charter school. His mother, Betty Wynn, sits in the living room of a second-floor apartment filled with her collection of stuffed animals and talks about her hopes for her son. She says he will pose some challenges for KIPP teachers because he has difficulty paying attention at times.

"He takes Concerta," she says, referring to his medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. "He takes the medicine to keep himself focused, and he learns a little bit better when he's on it."

As she talks, she watches Terrance, who is sitting in a chair and not paying much attention to the conversation. With compassion in her voice, she looks at her son and says, "Look at him now. Instead of sitting and listening to us, he's doing something totally different."

Actually, Terrance was leaning to one side in his chair and looking intently at his fingers in ways that didn't seem out of the ordinary. When asked a question, he sat up instantly to respond. His dream, he says at one point, is to become a pro basketball player. And with wisdom exceeding his age, he adds, "For backup, I want to be a naval officer."


"To protect my country," he says.

He seems to know where he wants to go even if he doesn't quite know what college will take him there. In time at KIPP, he will learn the names of excellent colleges with the same ease he grasps history lessons and solves math equations.

In addition to focusing on academics, KIPP makes kids aware that college is the program's ultimate goal and shows them how to work hard to get into top-ranked universities.

For now, the idea of college draws a blank in Terrance's mind. When asked what college he'd like to attend, Terrance frowned a little, his eyes turned toward the ceiling as if in deep thought. But he couldn't think of one school -- not even Washington University, which is sponsoring KIPP in St. Louis and will offer after-school tutors to help him and others succeed.

The university also will offer social services to parents like Betty Wynn. As she spoke with a Beacon writer, she scanned newspaper want ads, searching for a used washer and dryer and for an alternative to the overcrowded apartment the family has called home for the past two months. She hopes to move soon, but stresses that the one thing she'll refuse to part with is a KIPP education for young Terrance. A niece in a KIPP school in Indiana had convinced her a year ago that KIPP would be a good choice for cousin Terrance. Terrance and his mom seem thankful to have learned about this new school, situated only about five blocks south of their home.

Heaven Guerin

Unlike Terrance, Heaven Guerin, 10, knows plenty about Washington University and many other colleges. She says she was an A and B student in public schools and adds that she intends to be an "A-plus student" at KIPP. Her eyes already are set on attending Harvard or Yale. Not surprising, the number she thinks about the most is 2017, the year she expects to finish high school and enter college.

Right now, however, she says she'll have to get used to some new things She admits to being a little nervous about attending a new school and having to make new friends, not an unusual reaction. She also was surprised when her mom, Cachett Currie, told her she'd have to rise at 5:30 a.m. each morning to get ready for school.

"I was like, 'Are you sure, mom?' Then I learned about all the things we're going to do at KIPP. I know I will like it because they make you feel special."

Cachett Currie already feels a sense of belonging at KIPP. She is finding time to volunteer in spite of working and studying to earn an associate degree in criminal justice because she wants to "help kids before they end up in prison and get lost."

She and other parents helped school officials get the building ready for today's opening.

"KIPP not only wants you to come in but to do something while you're there," Currie says. "That makes it different from some other schools. We've been dusting, unpacking boxes, moving desks and chairs from the front of the building into classrooms."

She enjoys this family atmosphere and the fact that nobody told her, "Don't do this or that or pick up that box because you might hurt yourself and we might get sued."

KIPP, she says is engaging parents to participate and "steering kids toward something better in life and not just taking the kids in order to get the funding. It's a place where the school is more focused on education."

Heaven says KIPP is as special to her as her unusual name.

"I got my name from my grandmother (Marion Currie)," she says. "She said that I'm going to be a little piece of heaven."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.