A Golden Opportunity for Success

Rebecca Sufrin

Writing Intern

In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the secrets of what makes a person successful are revealed. Throughout his novel, Gladwell uses the experiences of many types of people, from hockey players to software programmers to lawyers, to explain why and how people become successful. One major underlying thread that is necessary for this success is opportunity.

In one of the last stories of his novel, Gladwell introduces the KIPP Academy. Standing for “Knowledge Is Power Program,” the KIPP Academy is an open-enrollment college-preparatory program that most often benefits children from underserved areas. Founded in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, KIPP’s core value remains that “all students, regardless of their zip-code or demographics, will learn and achieve.” More specifically, KIPP’s goal is to assist students in developing the “knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to succeed in college and build a better tomorrow for their communities.”

Gladwell highlights the seventy-student fifth grade at the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, New York City. Approximately half of the student body is African American and the other half is Hispanic. Being one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, the KIPP Academy is a hidden gem among other failing educational institutions. Current students were not handpicked to attend KIPP based on any specific circumstance. Rather, they were the lucky ones chosen by a lottery system and beat out of hundreds of other students for a chance, an opportunity, to attend a school that would ultimately change their life for the better.

Academically, this specific KIPP Academy is known for its students’ success in mathematics. According to Gladwell, only 16% of all middle school students in the South Bronx are performing at or above their grade level in math. At KIPP, however, seventh graders begin high school algebra and by the end of eighth grade, 84% of the students are performing at or above their grade level. The author analyzes these facts perfectly: “[This] is to say that this motley group of randomly chosen lower-income kids from dingy apartments in one of the country’s worst neighborhoods – whose parents, in an overwhelming number of cases, never set foot in a college – do as well in mathematics as the privileged eighth graders of America’s wealthy suburbs” (252).

The author describes the environment inside the school: “The students walk quietly down the hallways in single file. In the classroom, they are taught to turn and address anyone talking to them in a protocol known as “SSLANT”: smile, sit up, listen, ask questions, nod when being spoken to, and track with your eyes. On the walls of the school’s corridors are hundreds of pennants from the colleges that KIPP graduates have gone to attend” (251).

The SSLANT protocol shines light on something that is often overlooked in the discussion of equal opportunity: social capital. KIPP is educating students on an academic basis as well as a social basis that will undoubtedly benefit their students in the professional world. By knowing how to physically, emotionally, and mentally present themselves to others, they are more likely to make positive impressions when networking and will likely perform better in interview settings. These outcomes could lead to successes in the job market and could very much assist in reversing poor economic patterns that many students have been entrenched in for so long.

Though KIPP employees never doubt the abilities or potential of their students, the program emphasizes impacts that drastic economic inequality has on youth education. At the same time, however, KIPP proves with flying colors that when children from low-income backgrounds are given a chance, an equal opportunity, to learn and grow both academically and socially, they can match or exceed results of wealthier children.

Today, there are more than 41,000 KIPP students across the country and 85% of KIPP alumni have gone to college. It is their hope that they can continue to change the futures of so many deserving children, from whatever socioeconomic background they may be from.