The intersection of King and Story roads in East San Jose, California, has long been notorious as gang-infested, violent, and poor-facts that most educators will tell you make it an unlikely location for educational excellence.

But just steps from that infamous corner, on a bedraggled middle school campus that promises nothing better, is a school with test scores that rank it among the best in California. Its students-all neighborhood kids-are unflaggingly polite, offering a handshake and a poised explanation of the day’s lesson to a classroom visitor. And although they are only twelve or thirteen years old, virtually all can tell you which university they hope to attend and why. Then they quickly pad back to their desks, lest they fall behind.

This is Heartwood Academy, one of five middle schools and two high schools the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school network operates in the San Francisco Bay Area, all of which are located in neighborhoods like King and Story and all of which produce similar results. The California schools are part of a network of KIPP schools that have blossomed across the nation since 1999.

This fall, with support from the Hewlett Foundation, the research institute SRI International issued one of the most thorough and ambitious studies to date of the educational approach of KIPP charter schools.

The independent, three-year study, which was based on the Bay Area schools and included Heartwood, rejected charges from some educational quarters that KIPP’s success results from “creaming” the best students from the neighborhoods, and affirmed that the schools significantly outperform surrounding public schools on standardized tests. This is the first major study to scrutinize the praise and criticisms associated with KIPP, as well as key challenges facing Bay Area KIPP schools today.

The study also suggested that it was the overall culture of the KIPP schools, rather than any single teaching strategy, that seemed to foster the superior results. Notable features of that culture are uniformly high expectations for student performance, extra time and support for student learning, close tracking of each student’s progress, and a philosophy of continuous improvement.

“It is the combination of KIPP’s features that makes these schools effective,” says Katrina Woodworth, the study’s principal investigator. “Other schools or districts looking to emulate KIPP should not pick and choose elements of its approach and expect to see the same results. They must view them as a suite of practices that work together to realize gains in student learning.”

Despite Problems, a Model for Others

The SRI study concluded that, despite KIPP’s problems of high student attrition and teacher turnover, school districts can learn from its example. The research supports a long-standing goal of the Hewlett Foundation to increase student achievement by finding ways to improve K-12 classroom instruction throughout the country.

In most grades, the Bay Area KIPP students made above-average progress compared to national norms, and four out of five KIPP schools outperformed their host districts. At the end of fifth grade, KIPP students at the three Bay Area KIPP schools for which data were available far outperformed their counterparts in other schools in the same districts on California’s standardized tests.

Heartwood Academy is the highest-scoring middle school in San Jose’s Alum Rock District-even though 60 percent of its students are English learners and nearly 90 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. On the most recent tests, 97 percent of its eighth graders proved proficient in science, 96 percent proficient in history, and 91 percent proficient in English. Those scores are comparable to the performance of middle schools in affluent Palo Alto, California, home to Stanford University and some of the highest school test scores in the state.

“We’re on the way up in this neighborhood, and it’s education programs like this that are going to help make a difference well into the future,” said Ryan Ford, chief of staff for San Jose City Councilmember Nora Campos, whose district includes Heartwood Academy.

In the three KIPP schools where they were able to draw comparisons, SRI researchers found that students with lower achievement on the standardized tests were more likely to choose KIPP than higher-performing students from the same neighborhood, suggesting that-at least at these schools-cherry-picking does not occur.

SRI’s finding comes as no surprise to Sehba Ali, the founder of Heartwood Academy and an early proponent of its approach. Ali met the founders of what would become KIPP, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, while all three were young Teach for America teachers working in inner-city schools in Houston, Texas.

“I realized that the main difference between where I was teaching and the suburban schools was that our kids didn’t have the expectation that they would go to college,” Ali says. “My kids weren’t able to see what the future could hold. It meant doing what their parents did and living in the same neighborhood their parents did.”

In the years since Ali met Feinberg and Levin, their vision of KIPP has grown to sixty-five schools in nineteen states that serve more than 16,000 students. In the Bay Area, there are KIPP schools in Bay View Hunters Point and the Western Addition in San Francisco, West Oakland, and San Lorenzo, as well as East San Jose. The growth has been fueled by $40 million in donations by Don Fisher, the founder of The Gap stores, and his wife, Doris.

Forging a Culture of High Expectations

KIPP schools don’t have uniform curricula but share a culture of high expectations (consistently enforced through rewards) and rigorous classroom discipline for those who misbehave. Students attend school nine hours per day-until 5:15 p.m. most days at Heartwood-along with summer school and some Saturday classes. Teachers are available to answer students’ questions by cell phone until 9:00 p.m. each night. The SRI study also credits close tracking of every student’s progress as crucial to the formula.

On the Heartwood campus on a recent morning, the most striking feature might be the quiet. The raucous exuberance typical of class changes at most schools doesn’t exist here. The 360 students walk-not run-to their next classroom and line up quietly until they can enter. Most students put a nose in a book as they wait. Teasing, so common a feature of most middle school campuses, is a sufficient offense at Heartwood that the whole campus has been known to shut down to examine it, on the rare occasion when it happens. Student participation in class, judging by raised hands and call-and-response lessons, seems to be something close to 100 percent.

All of which isn’t to say there are no challenges.

The school’s charter is up for reauthorization this year, and since high performance is no bar to school board politics, Heartwood’s fate is uncertain. Attrition of both students and teachers is high. Fully 60 percent of students who entered fifth grade at four Bay Area KIPP schools in 2003-4 left before completing eighth grade. Annual teacher turnover rates have ranged from 18 to 49 percent since 2003-4, and finding enough teachers with the necessary commitment and talent makes scaling up the program to meet the need an open question.

Finally, of course, as always, there is the question of money. California provides as little as half the amount many other states commit per student. Bay Area KIPP leaders need to raise anywhere from $400,000 to $700,000 annually to close the gap between the state and local funds their schools receive and their true operating costs.

And although Ali helped open the first year of a KIPP high school in East Side Union High School District last fall so that the first Heartwood graduates can continue on their path, the shortage of state funding and the high cost of facilities have made it doubtful that KIPP will expand much more in California.

While polls consistently show that Californians place improving education at or near the top of their priorities, they’ve also shown a striking reluctance to do anything that would provide the additional funding to allow that to happen.

“This study shows that KIPP is effective at increasing student achievement among poor and minority students, a population California is desperately struggling to serve,” says Marshall Smith, former director of Hewlett’s Education Program. “It would be tragic, indeed, if we found a program that works and the state walked away from it for lack of will.”