By Audrey Schewe
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(CNN) -- Students at the West Atlanta Young Scholars Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, are expected to go to college.
Known as KIPP WAYS, the school is one of the more than 50 "KIPP" public charter schools serving students from low-income urban and rural communities across the country. KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program.
Homerooms are named "Cornell," "University of Virginia," and "Clark Atlanta," after the teachers' alma maters. The school mascot is the "Scholar Dog" -- a diploma-holding, cap-wearing bulldog. Class banners denote each grade level to keep students focused on their goals.
But the fifth-grade through eighth-grade students at KIPP WAYS have not always been scholars.
As an elementary student in the Atlanta Public Schools, Sherri Chapman had no interest in school.
"I didn't understand what my teachers were saying and they didn't take the time to help me. So I just used to skip school or cut class," Sherri said.
Since coming to KIPP WAYS, Sherri has earned her way onto the honor roll.
But it hasn't been easy.
"When I came to KIPP WAYS, I wasn't used to everyone being on my back," Sherri said. "I spent a lot of time getting to know our principal, Mr. Jernigan."
She even had to repeat the sixth-grade. But while Sherri entered KIPP WAYS with clinched fists, she now embraces the school with open arms.
"In this generation, if you don't have a college degree, then you can't get the job that you want," she said. "I will not work in McDonalds the rest of my life. ... I see myself going to NYU, Clark Atlanta, or I want to say even Harvard."
At KIPP WAYS, Sherri's story is not unique.
"Where I used to go to school, I didn't really care about anything," said eighth-grade student Lovell Harris. But with his sights set on Atlanta's most prestigious high schools, Lovell now has a reason to care. "I don't really know where I want to go to college, but I want to be an architect," he said.
And positive attitudes have translated into positive test scores.
"The kids who come to our school tend to be at least one year below grade level when they get here," said KIPP WAYS Principal David Jernigan.
But despite starting way behind, students at KIPP WAYS have continued to improve. For example, by the 2005-2006 school year, fifth-grade students from KIPP WAYS outperformed students in the City of Atlanta Public Schools on the Georgia writing test with a 99 percent pass rate -- six percentage points better than the average for Atlanta Public Schools.
The fifth-graders did not fare as well on other tests, but KIPP WAYS students have a knack for improving. For example, seventh-grade KIPP WAYS students outperformed the state average in reading, language arts, math, science and social studies on last year's statewide Georgia Criterion Referenced Test.
Not your traditional public school
How does Jernigan account for the successes of his students?
"There is no magic bullet about education reform," said Jernigan. "Our philosophy is that it's about rolling up our sleeves and working a lot harder."
Any Atlanta Public School fourth-grader can apply for fifth-grade at KIPP WAYS. If there is a vacancy, the student will be admitted, regardless of grades or test scores. In general, students who apply in fourth-grade must commit to four years at the school. This year, KIPP WAYS has almost 90 students on its waiting list.
Like traditional public schools, KIPP schools are tuition-free, open to all students and free of any religious affiliation. KIPP teachers must meet their state's education standards and students must take all required state exams.
But unlike traditional public schools, KIPP schools are organized around a public charter, and so administered independently from their local school districts.
In exchange for this freedom, schools sign a "charter" or contract, usually with the local and state school boards, which defines the school's mission, programs, target student population and measurements of success.
A charter school remains open only as long as it continues to meet the terms of its charter. If it fails to do this, it can be closed by authorities.
Although still primarily funded with Georgia district and state tax dollars, charter schools are free to spend their money as they see fit.
By choosing to buy second-hand desks, chairs and computers, for example, Jernigan said he can allocate more money for teacher salaries and student field trips.
"We spend a great deal of money on field trips for the kids," said Jernigan. "Those are things that we feel are important because it's part of exposing them to a world outside their community."
Jernigan also has the freedom to require more time in school from his students.
Official school hours for KIPP WAYS students are 7:15 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. on weekdays, but students are sometimes asked to stay later. Students also go to school on Saturday mornings and attend a three-week summer session.
The teachers sign a "commitment to excellence" agreement that, according to Jernigan, allows him greater freedom to hire and fire teachers as he sees fit.
"There aren't that many teachers who would be able to commit to being available at any hour for their students," said Jernigan. "But those are the types of teachers that we attract at KIPP WAYS Academy."
Two years ago, when it became clear to Jernigan that one of his teachers was not a good fit for the school, Jernigan fired him immediately.
"In a traditional school, that teacher would have stayed for at least a year. At our school, after three weeks, we got rid of him, found a new teacher and had a great year with great results for that class. Most school principals don't have those freedoms," he said.
Unlike some public schools with populations in the thousands, KIPP WAYS only serves about 300 students. This makes it possible for Jernigan and his staff to get to know each student personally.
"We find out what motivates each child, and then follow through with that consistently," said English teacher LaLona Richards.
Social studies teacher Dwight Ho-Sang connects with his students by getting them to see their place in history.
"We have 100 percent African-American kids," he said. "I want to help them to understand that they are powerful people who have contributed to the world. And I think that is what really pushes them," said Ho-Sang.
Rewards and consequences
Another benefit of a small student population is the ability to maintain uniform discipline procedures.
At KIPP WAYS, students receive "paychecks," which travel with them through the day. Every day, students can "earn" $1 for being present, $1 for being on time and $1 for being prepared and completing homework for each of their six classes. That's a a total of $8 per day.
The teachers monitor the students' paychecks, which roll over like a 401K from year to year. Students may use the "money" from their paychecks to "buy" items at the school store, or to "earn" a class field trip.
However, students may also get fined for poor behavior. Commit an academic or "scholarship" offense, like being unprepared, having a messy desk or being off task, and it will cost you $1. Prevent someone else from learning and it will cost you $2. Integrity violations like lying, cheating or stealing cost $5.
Students are required to earn a specific dollar amount by the end of each week. Earning less than expected places them "on the bench."
Richards explains the sports analogy.
"The students don't want to be on the bench," says Richards. "They can't 'play' in the game. They can't be part of the team."
Commitment to excellence
This system of rewards and consequences is consistent throughout the school, and all teachers are required to adhere to it.
Of all of the differences between his school and traditional public schools, Jernigan believes the biggest adjustment for new students is the high expectations teachers have for them.
"By virtue of the fact that they have chosen to come to our school, the parents and students are choosing to commit to a higher standard," Jernigan said.
That higher standard applies to teachers, students and parents.
When Sabrina Veasey's daughter forgot her homework, the fifth-grader was placed in detention and had to redo the entire assignment.
Veasey, who is both a parent of a KIPP WAYS student and the school's Director of Student and Family Services, said that while it was really hard on her daughter, she supports the strict policy.
"She'll never forget her homework again. We are that hard on students for a reason. They won't be able to compete without it," she said.
"Mr. Jernigan will say 'Do whatever it takes,' and sometimes we get really mad," admits Veasey. "But if I see him doing it too, I have no choice. I just say, 'What do you need me to do?' because I see that it makes a difference," she said.
Teaching and learning at KIPP WAYS means a lot of hard work and long hours. And Jernigan admits his school is far from perfect. But, Jernigan said, when something goes wrong, at least he and his staff have the ability to fix it.
"It's having that freedom to be able to make decisions quickly, and execute them quickly in a way that meets the needs of our kids that is one of the greatest advantages to being a charter."
Fifth graders at KIPP WAYS stay focused on graduating.
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