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Outside each glass-walled conference room, there’s a sign the size of a sheet from a schoolchild’s notebook.

Zest. Grit. Self-Control. Social Intelligence. Gratitude. Optimism. Curiosity. These are the inspiring words that the kids enrolled in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), America’s largest, and arguably the most successful, nonprofit charter school network, live and study by.

Richard Barth, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, which is the national umbrella organization for KIPP schools, walks past the wall that says “Work Hard. Be Nice.” He goes straight to the “Grit” conference room and clasps a coffee mug. He’s just returned to Manhattan after a trip to the San Francisco Bay area, where he visited the KIPP schools. His flight from California didn’t land until after midnight, and he needs—really needs—the caffeine to get his head straight.

With his baby-blue Mr. Rogers sweater and rimless glasses framing his intense blue eyes, Barth looks more collegial than corporate.  He doesn’t mind the travel, which keeps him on the road some 100 nights a year. He’s been doing it enthusiastically ever since he came to KIPP eight years ago, overseeing its phenomenal growth from 2005 to the present: from 45 schools to 125; from 8,200 students to more than 41,000 and from 200 students in college to more than 3,000.

“Our vision, our goal,” he says, “is to help kids who otherwise would not have a future climb the mountain to college and be successful in life.”

 The KIPP kids he’s talking about are the ones who always fall through the cracks, not only in school but also in the work world. Some 87 percent of them are from low-income families that are eligible for the U.S. free or reduced-price meals program, and 95 percent are African-American or Latino. While roughly 8 in 10 top-economic tier students graduate from college, only about 1 in 10 students from KIPP’s target populations matriculate.

 KIPP is a new kid in the schoolyard. It was established in 1994 by Teach For America alumni Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg in Houston, Texas. Since then, under its ground-breaking curriculum that places equal emphasis on academic performance and character building, more than 90 percent of students have graduated from high school and more than 80 percent have gone on to college. The college graduation rate is 40 percent, more than four times the rate for students in low-income communities. Take note of that 40 percent: Only 30 percent of all Americans earn a four-year college degree.

“Working for KIPP has been an unbelievable opportunity for me and for the kids,” Barth says. “I’ve had the chance to help grow something and start with an important goal in mind and work my tail off.”

Barth has been working on behalf of underserved students ever since he was a student at Harvard, where he earned a degree in American history. During his four years there, he became a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters. That experience began his real-life education and led him to help start a program that worked to prepare high school students from low-income families for college life. The year-long program, staffed by volunteer students like Barth, paired an intensive academic experience with one-on-one mentoring.

“These kids were amazing, but they had no long-term goals,” he says. “They were coasting with Cs.”

After seeing the difference he made in the lives of those kids, Barth decided to apply to become a public school teacher in New York City schools. When he was declined – he was told he wasn’t qualified because he hadn’t done any classroom teaching – so he became a founding staff member of Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in underserved communities around the country. It was started by Wendy Kopp, who became Mrs. Barth in 1998.

From there, he moved to Edison Schools, where he managed school partnerships that helped more than 40,000 students.

When he came to KIPP, he envisioned a 20-year plan, never dreaming that he would surpass many of his initial goals in less than half that time.  “No one in education is taking a long-term view of what it will take for our kids to make it because the school boards change, the politicians change and superintendents change,” he says. “There’s no continuity.”

But that wasn’t the case at KIPP, which has stayed the course and has proved itself over and over again in school after school. “The big question in life, and certainly in education,” Barth says, “is can you grow and not give up your mission. The educational landscape is littered with individual success stories. You hear about one program or one school and people try to grow it, and it doesn’t work. We have gone, in that time, from 45 schools to 125. Our results for our kids have not been diluted.”

Barth sees KIPP not so much as a model for other institutions to follow but as a leader in a nationwide competition to create a better educational system for every student, regardless of economic or ethnic status. “Every child growing up in America should be able to wake up and head off to a school that is preparing him or her to thrive in the modern world and our very competitive economy,” he says. “Every child should have shot at this dream, and every child should know that it’s a lot of work to take on. We’re not there yet, but there’s reason to believe that we can get there.”

In fact, in Barth’s perfect world, it wouldn’t matter whether a school was charter or traditional as long as it provides an excellent education for all.

“Right now, parents don’t care what kind of school it is,” he says. “They just want a good school.”

For its first 10 years, KIPP only operated middle schools serving grades 5-8.  In 2004, prior to Barth’s arrival, co-founders Levin and Feinberg decided to expand KIPP into a K-12 format, starting elementary schools and high schools. There are currently 37 elementary schools, 70 middle schools and 18 high schools. Most recently, KIPP has started partnering with institutions of higher learning to increase its already high college completion rates. So far, KIPP has partnered with 20 colleges and universities, including Georgetown University, Tulane University, Duke University, Syracuse University and Brown University.

 “We’re talking with them to make sure our kids are fully prepared,” Barth says. “When you build that on top of our decision to go K-12, we don’t yet have fully any idea how far kids can go. We don’t have a kid who has gone from kindergarten through 12th grade. When we start seeing what that looks like over the next five or 10 years, I think we’re going to surprise ourselves again and find that our kids can go beyond where we thought they could go.”

Barth is quick to point out that KIPP doesn’t have a “secret sauce” for success. There are many things that go into the mix that are far beyond its uniquely interesting curriculum or its longer school days. For one thing, each school is allowed to build its dream team. “We have phenomenal leadership and lots of freedoms in exchange for a high degree of accountability,” he says.

Most of the credit, Barth says, goes to the kids, who are taught from Day 1 to strive to reach Plan A. “We help the kids paint a picture for their future,” he says. “We make it clear to them that they are climbing a mountain to college and they know that this is the goal. Whether you’re talking to an 8-year-old or an 18-year-old, they’re always thinking and talking about where they’re going and what they’re doing to get there. We don’t take short cuts, and we take school seriously.”

Barth makes it clear, though, that mastering reading, writing and arithmetic only take students half way up the mountain. “We recognize that other things are critical to the future,” he says. “We really focus on the intentional development of character. We believe you can intentionally teach character. And its cultivation will lead to life-long happiness and success.”

Since its inception, KIPP has emphasized a dual approach of teaching academics and character.  Based on recent research by Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Chris Peterson (University of Michigan), and Dr. Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), KIPP co-founder Dave Levin has identified seven character strengths that are most predictive of success later in life: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

 KIPP is making its strides when the institutions of higher learning are on the cusp of great change. The notion of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has become a viable option as the down economy is pricing many out of the college market and people are focusing on work skills instead of degrees.

“In America today, the value of a college degree versus high school has grown 50 percent since I graduated in 1989,” Barth says. “Educational attainment is a tremendous currency in today’s world. College does matter. It’s clear that if you set yourself up to be successful in college, you’re generally setting yourself up to be prepared for life whether you get into college.”

This doesn’t mean, he continues, that the educational landscape will remain the same. “There will be a disruption in the college system as we know it today,” Barth says. “And I think in 20 years we’ll look at it and say it looks very different. We don’t know what role the MOOCs will play. We should be careful to overestimate how quickly online courses will have the same credential value to employers.”

College is a subject that’s always on Barth’s mind, even when it doesn’t involve KIPP. He has four children, ages 4, 8, 10 and 12. They go to public schools in Manhattan, where he and his wife live. “We feel lucky to be in a city with a lot of public school options,” he says.

Barth is excited to be a part of KIPP’s future. He says he has no desire or plans to leave. He’s eager to see KIPP grow – and at warp speed.

By 2015, his goal is to have 55,000 students in KIPP, more than double the number it had in 2010. He wants to get to 60,000 and have 10,000 who have matriculated to college. That’s just the beginning. He sees a time, not so far off, when KIPP will be working with 100,000 students and have 25,000 in college. And someday—he hopes it will be soon—his KIPPsters will graduate from college at a similar rate to their peers from high-income backgrounds. “This goal is attainable,” he insists.

When all this happens, and only then, will he award himself – and the 3,000 other people on the KIPP team – an A-plus.

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