A former KIPP student, teacher and parent reflects on oppressive schooling

Picture of Frances Scarlen Martinez

Frances Scarlen Martinez

Picture of Frances Scarlen Martinez

I still recall a popular chant that my peers and I would recite when I was an elementary student attending KIPP Academy in the South Bronx twenty years ago. It was called “Read Baby Read,” and we would chant it mindlessly to donors, politicians—even famous musicians. The final line went like this: “Knowledge is power, power is freedom and I want it.” Today, those words still resonate with me, but for entirely different reasons. A chant that in my adolescence made me feel like part of a minstrel show I now see as a rallying cry to anyone who is committed to the liberation of Black and Brown students in this country. 

Education has always been a significant part of my life. From a very young age, I learned that education was my one-way ticket to success, freedom, and happiness. My grandmother didn’t attend school past the 8th grade in our native Dominican Republic. When my family moved to the United States, my mom’s lack of education limited the types of jobs she could apply for. My grandmother made sweets and pies to sell to help the family get by. While I helped her in the kitchen, she never missed an opportunity to tell me that she had no choice but to make these pies because she was uneducated. 

So when the co-founder of KIPP Schools, David Levin, came knocking at our door, my family, and my grandmother, in particular, saw it as a godsend. I’d been attending PS 156, a now-defunct elementary school in the South Bronx. But this tall white man making his way through our neighborhood, clipboard in hand, was signing up kids for a new “special” school. The public schools in the area were terrible, Levin told us, low-performing, riddled with gangs, and filled with teachers who didn’t care. KIPP was not only different but the only way to help your child succeed. The combination of fear-mongering, white charm, and the allure of the sales pitch worked like magic. My mom signed the KIPP contract for all three of her children.

Power play

I showed up for the first day of summer school feeling chosen and unique. What happened next blindsided me. I’d always loved school and learning. At my Bronx elementary I’d regularly made the honor roll. Suddenly adults were policing my every move, my every word. Suddenly I wasn’t good enough. The way I carried myself was no longer acceptable, the way I spoke was not proper. Still, being the high achiever I was, I took all of this as a challenge. I can be silent, keep my body straight and track speakers with my eyes. I can nod my head to show engagement and I can lose my Dominican accent. After all, this was my golden ticket, and my family was counting on it. I was willing to accept anything said to me in order to prove my worth. 

In my experience as a student, I was told how and when to speak, how to dress, where to look, how to nod, how to sit, and how to think from 7:25 am until 5 pm Monday through Friday and from 8-1 pm on Saturdays. Every aspect of our day was controlled, our compliance was routinely tested. At any given moment, the leader of our school would appear in our classroom, demanding to know, “What room is this?” To which we were expected to chant back in unison: “This is the room, that has the kids, that want to learn to read more books, to build a better tomorrow.” If one student did not comply, everyone else would have to repeat the chant again and again until they joined in or were taken away for an individual redirection. The point of this exercise was to keep us on our toes. Just like random cell checks in a prison keep the prisoners from ever feeling at ease, this power exercise was meant to remind us who was in control.

These experiences put me in a constant state of defense. I was always preparing to defend myself because in essence my very existence, my very being was under constant attack and critique. I began to question myself and my worth. After KIPP, I was afforded the opportunity to attend a private boarding school in the suburbs outside of Boston. The first few years I struggled immensely with my identity. I didn’t know who I was. I had lost my sense of self from the age of eleven. I’m still trying to get it back.

A culture of submission

Years after attending KIPP as a student, I came back as a teacher. While the chants I’d been subjected to as a child had been retired, I quickly realized that they had been replaced with other measures of control. I was expected to make first, second, and third graders fill their mouths with air and puff their cheeks out to restrict their ability to make a sound. Indeed, in our teacher rubric, one of the longest sections spoke to behavior management. We were evaluated on how effectively we policed elementary-aged students, how silent a classroom was, what percentage of students were following the speaker with their eyes and nodding, and how many students kept their eyes on their paper the entire time. 

While my experiences as a student and a teacher were at times difficult, nothing was more traumatic than experiencing a KIPP charter school as a mother. While I taught at KIPP DC, my daughter Chloe attended the same school from K-3rd grade. To be honest, had I not been just a classroom away I would not have felt comfortable leaving her at that school. You see, my Chloe was and is a sweet flower, full of joy, love, and laughter. It was very difficult to see her marching up and down the halls, having limited access to the bathroom or time to eat her lunch. 

One day on our way home my daughter asked me a question. “Mommy, my cheeks hurt. Do I have to keep grabbing a bubble?” I fought back tears at her words. Cultivating and developing her independent spirit had always been of the utmost importance to me. What was she doing at this oppressive place? What was I doing there?

I have now worked at several charter schools and can attest that none relishes restricting students of color as much as KIPP.

Fighting back

Since I first attended KIPP as a student nearly two decades ago, the number of charter schools across the country has exploded. There are 326 operating in New York alone. And while these schools receive state and federal money, they are mostly run like private schools. This structure has made it virtually impossible to hold schools accountable for misconduct. Despite research on the harmful effects of no excuses policies like what I endured, major charter school networks have not evolved. What changes have been made have been cosmetic. After the social reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death, KIPP retired the phrase “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Other networks began holding affinity groups and hiring DEIA directors. But outside of these largely performative measures, the changes mostly stopped. Oppressive practices that belittle students and staff of color alike are still in place. 

Now, thanks to the rise of resistance movements on social media, these networks may have no choice but to change. For the first time, students, teachers and parents are using social media accounts like Survivors of Success Academy, The Uncommon Truth, and Being Black at KIPP, to voice what’s happening inside of these schools, beyond the color-coordinated branding and mission-driven taglines. 

I believe that in the years to come we’ll see more movements of resistance, forcing a reckoning with oppressive schooling practices. We need to reassess the way we measure school quality, taking into account the way that schools treat their students. Charter networks that abuse the psyches of their BIPOC students should not be held up as “high performing.” 

This is why I am so passionate about my current role, helping new education professionals engage in urban communities in ways that cultivate genius and develop leaders in those communities. My hope is to continue to work with organizations to help their educators maximize their impact on students beyond academics. Now that we know better, it is the time to do better as well.

We need to promote education that supports independence, growth and cultivates innovation. Knowledge IS power and we must arm our communities with it. We must let our communities breathe. They are not waiting for superman. They do not need nor wish for saviors. What they need are co-conspirators in their liberation. 

Frances Scarlen Martinez is a career educator committed to uplifting the voices and needs of underserved communities. She attended KIPP Academy in the South Bronx when it first opened its doors. She graduated from St. Marks School, a private boarding school in Southboro, MA. She has a BA in Spanish from Manhattan College and an MA in Education Policy and Leadership from American University. Scarlen currently works to support AmeriCorps service members in their first or second year of teaching, helping prepare them to be effective in their new cultural surroundings. She is also an author of diverse children’s books and published her first children’s book, The Tale of El Chiquitin, in 2021. Scarlen is still writing and is now working on launching @scarlensays, a platform for teachers, parents and education advocates to share resources on social media. She currently resides in Washington DC with her daughter Chloe.

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