One by one, 34 high school seniors walked across the stage set up in the gymnasium at KIPP Jacksonville’s campus. Whoops, screams and vigorous applause nearly drown out Pharrell’s “Happy” blasting through the speakers.
They found their seats and looked out into a crowd of middle and elementary school students in the bleachers along with family and friends seated in white folding chairs on the hardwood floor.
It was #CollegeSigningDay, KIPP Jacksonville style.
“In our culture, we traditionally celebrate athletes making good decisions to pursue college. And we feel like it’s important that we celebrate everyday students who are making that choice to pursue postsecondary education,” said Erin Almond, Senior Manager of KIPP Jacksonville’s KIPP Through College program.
“We need to show our fifth graders, seventh graders, eighth graders our commitment to our community—that we are making good on our promise and that this is actually possible.”
You might expect college signing events like this to take place on high school or college campuses. But KIPP Jacksonville takes an approach uncommon to other elementary and middle schools. They invited students they taught from fifth through eighth grades to come back and celebrate their high school graduation and college signing decisions with them.
KIPP Jax Students Are Beating the Odds
Not only do the students have a lot to celebrate, but KIPP leaders, teachers and staff do too!
Nearly every student from KIPP Jacksonville’s first class of fifth graders, 98 percent of them, considered college or some other opportunity to further their education and careers. Eighty percent of the students got accepted into at least one of their options and almost 50 percent got multiple offers.
To put that in context, Florida’s overall graduation rate is 82 percent.
Add to that the fact that 100 percent of KIPP students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and their college acceptance rates are even more remarkable.
Even though these students left KIPP after eighth grade, school leaders like Erin Almond kept track of them. They’re dead serious about their “to and through college” mission.
“We go to their schools. We send emails. We call. Chase them down in the hallways. We stock,” Almond said with a grin as the audience laughed knowingly. “We either find a way or we make one.”
Students Should Get to Choose
At one point, the schools’ executive director, Dr. Jennifer Brown, turned her back to the audience and faced the graduating seniors to tell the students a little about her life—how she was the first in her family to go to college, the first to get a doctorate, and how she chose to follow in her father’s footsteps and serve eight years in the U.S. military.
“I chose to do those things.” she said, emphasizing the word chose. “And I want you to be able to choose for yourself what you want to do in your life.” She told them.
One of those seniors, Dorian Campbell, has taken that message to heart.
“You don’t hear too much about people sayin’ ‘I’m going to college, I’m going to do something with my life.’ And so to now be around my classmates from middle school and we can all say that we fittin’ to go out to college, it really means a lot,” Campbell told me after the event. He’s a senior headed to University of North Florida.
“I really just want to be able to get to a place in my life where I can give back to my communities and let kids know there are more ways to make it out of our circumstances than just sellin’ drugs, playin’ basketball, or holdin’ a mic.”
If Something Isn’t Hard, Something Isn’t Right
Earlier in the program, Dorian delivered a short speech to those students, highlighting his struggles and how they changed him.
“The journey was hard, to say the least. But in this life, if something isn’t hard, something isn’t right.” he said. “This is the most challenging process, but it made me who I am.”
KIPP Jacksonville demands a lot of their students. Longer school days and longer school years than your traditional public school. Band as a required course. And high expectations in the classrooms.
They also demand a lot from their teachers and leadership staff who also work longer days and longer school years. They’re also there to help students whose trauma packed in their hearts is often far heavier than the books packed on their back.
Many of the students talked about the high expectations KIPP set for them, and how they didn’t like it. How they wanted to quit at times.
One alumnae, Perscilla Brown, surprised adults by making some unexpected admissions during her speech.
“It’s finally Friday. Yes! I am ready for the school year to be over because I. AM. TIRED. Of gettin’ up at 6AM and gettin’ out of school at 5PM.” she said.
The students roared with laughter and applause.
“On top of that I get homework every night,” she continued. “I’m TIRED of doing homework. I want to go to a different middle school,” and the crowd lost it again.
As soon as the noise died down enough, she quickly followed up.
“I can’t believe that was my fifth grade self talking. Now look at us,” she demanded.
Dorian also shared his struggles at KIPP.
“KIPP for me was the same as getting woken up by a belt would be for a kid with discipline issues: A rude awakening!” Dorian told the crowd. “I wanted to quit. A lot. Like, send me back to Andrew Robinson [Elementary School] immediately.”
But despite the challenges, in fact because of the challenges students said, they all changed. They stuck it out and made it to this important milestone. Many of the students expressed their gratitude for the leaders at KIPP, their persistence and love, and their commitment to help the students as they start a new academic adventure in college.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll have a KIPP college graduation celebration in another four years.