KIPP-Heartwood School, San Jose, California

In a rough neighborhood of failing schools, KIPP-Heartwood has built a island of dazzling success, producing some of the state’s top test scores. KIPP-Heartwood is part of the KIPP charter school system started by two young teachers in 1993 which now runs 66 schools, and which sends 80 percent of its students on to college, and is held up as a model for national education reform. 

“I’m Leaning Toward Stanford”

This is from the KIPP Academy of Opportunity of a Los Angeles– but the story is the same as KIPP-Heartwood or any other KIPP school. The way these kids talk, walk, hold themselves is characteristic of the system, and why KIPP is being increasingly seen as a model for reform. As on Harvard researcher told me, “They’re knocking it out of the park.”

Notice the chant they do to learn cell division at 4 minutes. All the KIPP schools learn in this way, using rhythm and song to build memory and reinforce learning – which, from a skill-circuit perspective, makes perfect sense.

I love the way the students talk about college around the 8 minute mark. This is very typical of the way KIPP’s college-focus infects their perspectives. These kids are not yet in middle school, yet they talk about college as if it’s a foregone conclusion—they are going, no question. Everything in their life is pushing in that direction. 


Like all hotbeds, KIPP-Heartwood does lots of deep practice (helped by long school days, which give 62 percent more learning time than public schools) and master teachers. But where it truly excels is in igniting motivation in its students; using a calculated burst of signals to release unconscious reserves of energy and passion that fuel the hard work. It does this by:

  • Creating and reinforcing an ultimate goal—in this case, college. KIPP establishes college as a goal the same way a priest establishes heaven as a goal. They make that goal tangible though campus visits and constant repetition. As one KIPP teacher put it, “At KIPP we say the word ‘college’ as often as people at other schools say the word ‘um.’ “
  • Coherency. Every element of KIPP – how a student earns his desk, how the classes stand in line, how they are named after their graduating year – is designed to push the same direction. When I attended the first school day of 2007, it was a bit like attending a Broadway play: every single detail told the same story: Work hard, be nice, and you’ll go to heaven (a.k.a., college).
  • Willingness to stop and fix. Whenever a KIPP student misbehaves—no matter how small that misbehavior is–everything stops, and they fix it. This same technique is found at many other hotbeds. Including, interestingly enough, the assembly lines of Toyota, the world’s most successful carmaker. They follow the same deep-practice principle: that honing skill-circuits, fixing small mistakes, builds excellence.