Five years from now, at high school graduation, the memory of their first visit to Harvard might not be as vivid, but it’s one that will last. The 40 young, inquisitive students who flocked to Cambridge on May 20 got a brief glimpse of a university with three and a half centuries of history — and a reminder of why they are pushed to work so hard in school.
For this group of 40, hailing from South Bronx, N.Y., the visit may have taken them more than 200 miles from home, but the reason these seventh-graders in navy polo shirts emblazoned with the letters “KIPP” were invited was to illustrate that, for them, Harvard — or any college for that matter — isn’t really all that far away.
KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, was founded in 1994 by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin — two ambitious Ivy League graduates who, upon joining the ranks of Teach for America, realized they wanted to make real progress in solving the problems of educational inequality in America’s low-income communities. So Feinberg and Levin created a fifth-grade public school program in inner-city Houston that has since expanded to a network of 66 charter schools (including one in the South Bronx), serving more than 16,000 students in 19 states from prekindergarten to high school, with a focus on preparing students in underserved communities for success in high school, college, and life.
The trip to Harvard was hosted by Weatherhead Center for International Affairs Executive Director Steven Bloomfield, who for five years has engaged KIPP seventh-graders, giving them a brief glimpse of where they could be if they put in the hard work.
After a New York Times article inspired Bloomfield and his wife to visit the South Bronx school, he was so impressed by the program that he asked KIPP to make Harvard a stop on its annual end-of-the-year New England trip. “We were entirely intrigued and in love with the place,” Bloomfield says.
Now in his fifth year of hosting the school, Bloomfield invites his current and former freshmen advisees as well as Harvard staff and faculty from around campus to talk with the visitors about their “Harvard experience.” The information, encouragement, and even inspiration the speakers provide makes this visit much more than a simple tour.
“When you see [the KIPP students] you get a sense how full of life, appreciation, and curiosity they are,” says Bloomfield. “KIPP has this really great formula in reaching students and their parents and so they’re worth every bit of investment that an institution like ours can make — not on behalf of the Harvard brand necessarily, but on behalf of education.”
The wide eyes, cheek-to-cheek grins, and thoughtful questions from the KIPP students spoke not only of their appreciation for the trip, but also to how special they are.
While only about a quarter of high school graduates in the South Bronx plan to go to college, almost 90 percent of the kids who start KIPP in fifth grade have gone on to higher education. And of those who do go to college, nearly three-fourths of the students graduate.
Davina Wu, a music teacher in her fifth year at KIPP, says, “The minute, in fifth grade, when they walk through the door, we say to them, ‘You’re going to college. You’re going to college.’”
And although their walk around campus is intended to be special for the students, Bloomfield tries to convince them that they are special too — and that for them, making it to Harvard is not unattainable. “It’s not really about the buildings and the green grass so much as the experience and the opportunity,” says Bloomfield.
“College anywhere is great, but if they come here and they see Harvard, and meet students and see their own people reflected in the faculty and staff, it helps them want to go to college,” says Wu. “They may not all end up at Harvard … but to have them see what college could be like is very powerful.”
“The whole idea is not, ‘This is Harvard in all of its grandeur,’” says Bloomfield. “The idea is, ‘This is college. You need to do it too.’”