Six years ago, Mike Spangenberg was just a typical college kid who wanted to change the world. "I was big on social justice issues," he says. "I wanted to go to law school, because I thought that was the way to gain access to power."
Social inequality was what fired him most. "It seemed so clearly wrong to me that your ZIP code has such a profound impact on your chances in life," he says.
Then one day, during his senior year at the University of Connecticut, Spangenberg was paging through the campus newspaper while waiting for an English class to begin. An ad for Teach for America caught his eye. In a moment, his law school plans evaporated. "I thought, 'Here's my chance -- here's how I can do all the things I care about," he says. A few months later, he began what became four years of teaching in gritty, inner-city Philadelphia.
Now Spangenberg, who grew up in Maple Grove, is back in the Twin Cities. At age 27, he's continuing his crusade for educational equality as director of Stand Academy, a new charter school in downtown Minneapolis.
Stand Academy is one of a nationwide network of KIPP schools -- an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program. Founded in 1994, KIPP has grown to 66 schools, mostly grades five through eight, in 19 states.
Nationwide, more than 90 percent of KIPP students are black or Latino, and more than 80 percent are low income. In 2007, the average student who had been with KIPP for four years had moved from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math, and from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading.
In Philadelphia, Spangenberg taught at a KIPP school for a year. There, he saw "what high expectations look like and what is possible," he says. After receiving a prestigious KIPP Fisher fellowship, he spent last year preparing to bring that success to Minnesota.
KIPP's approach to student recruitment illustrates its bold, innovative vision. In June, Spangenberg and Daisy Mitchell of the Twin Cities KIPP Coalition -- a group of community leaders who raised $550,000 to bring KIPP here -- began going door to door in north Minneapolis.
"We'd just walk up to people on the street, in community centers, in grocery stores," says Spangenberg. "We'd say, 'We're starting a free, college-prep charter school for fifth-graders. Do you know any fourth-graders who might be interested?"
Families flocked to sign up. Stand Academy will open with about 100 fifth-graders and will add a grade each year until it reaches eighth grade.
You'd think KIPP would be a tough sell. Its school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a half-day every other Saturday and a mandatory three-week summer session. But families are attracted by KIPP's track record. Eighty percent of the students from KIPP's first two schools -- the only KIPP graduates to complete high school so far -- have gone on to college, vs. less than 10 percent of low-income students nationwide, according to Spangenberg.
On Aug. 11, Stand Academy's first day of school, Spangenberg will gather his fifth-graders in the cafeteria. "I'll draw a picture of a mountain with a flag with '2016' on the top," he explains. "I'll tell them it's the year they're going to college. I'll say it will be a lot of hard work, but we'll do it together." Then he will hand out teachers' cell phone numbers, and teach the students some clever math songs that teach multiplication tables.
"By lunch, the kids will already have learned something," he says. "They will know this is a different kind of school."
At KIPP, attitude is as important as academics. Teachers work to instill the character traits -- diligence, self-control, patience, punctuality -- that are key to success.
A "culture of earning" plays a central role here. Students earn "KIPP dollars" by following school rules and completing homework on time. Each week, they go home with a "paycheck," which doubles as a progress report. After parents "endorse" it, students can use their earnings to buy things at the school store, and to participate in field trips to places like Duluth -- or, later, maybe Chicago or New York City.
Students also learn the importance of "getting the little things right."
"If you let little things slide, you may have to worry about big things later," says Spangenberg. On the first day of school, kids must bring three sharpened pencils. If they bring only two, or if they bring three unsharpened pencils, they may get a lunch or recess detention. "We tell them, 'That wasn't the assignment, and there are consequences,'" says Spangenberg.
KIPP students are "teammates," not classmates. The KIPP credo captures their dedication to excellence, and to each other: "If there's a problem, we look for a solution. If there's a better way, we find it. If we need help, we ask. If a teammate needs help, we give."