Sewanee. Vanderbilt. Georgetown.

The homeroom names at KIPP Academy Nashville, a SCORE Prize finalist school, have a familiar ring to them.

Howard. Belmont. Georgia Tech.

KIPP Academy 2015The names were carefully chosen to represent schools with high rates of college completion for Hispanic and black students. Some of these schools are familiar and close to home for Nashville students. Others are schools some kids have never heard of.

Davidson. Tennessee Tech. Montevallo.

KIPP Academy’s 250 students are in middle school. But every day, the focus is college. Not just getting into college, but completing it successfully.

“We talk about going through college, not going to college,” said School Leader Laura Miguez Howarth. “Our expectation is that you will complete college. From Day 1, this is a real possibility, and everything we do is in service to that goal.”

The college-focused culture at KIPP does prepare students to succeed in college. More immediately, they succeed in middle school. While students enter the school falling, on average, two or three grade levels behind on state tests, teachers help them progress quickly. KIPP students score near or above state averages on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), with 64 percent of KIPP students proficient or advanced in math compared to 46 percent statewide. The school posted strong three-year marks on TVAAS growthin math, reading, and science. From 2012 to 2014, KIPP Academy narrowed the achievement gap between low-income and higher income students in reading, math, and science.

KIPP Academy, a charter school, is part of a national network of 162 KIPP schools. In Nashville, KIPP has expanded in the last few years to open schools that will ultimately serve students in grades kindergarten through 12. Students work hard at KIPP and follow an extended school calendar. The school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. most days, though students are dismissed at 2 p.m. one day each week to give teachers time for collaboration and professional development. Students are also in school for two additional weeks in July.

Most KIPP students will be the first in their families to attend college, and more than 90 percent of the school’s students are considered economically disadvantaged. To convince students to believe higher education is possible, the school has them thinking about college every moment of the school day.

The strong focus on academics is paired with information about specific targets students need to reach for college to be a possibility. Posters throughout the school list the colleges students qualify for with various ACT scores and grade point average (GPA) levels. Students learn that they must earn a 21 on the ACT to earn a HOPE scholarship, and that a GPA of 3.0 or higher will open important doors. Each student has individualized growth targets set with immediate, tiered goals. Initially students may push hard to climb from the tenth percentile to the eleventh. Over time, these achievements add up.

Students are taught adopt habits that will be essential in college. They learn how to keep an agenda, and are taught to fold a paper in half and take notes in class using the Cornell method. Students know they do homework every night in middle school because they’ll need to study every night in college, whether they have homework or not.

“We build systems that support good habits, and then invest the students,” said Ms. Howarth. Repeated practice and explaining why these tools are used is important to helping students develop the habits they will need for college, she says.

KIPP Strategies2KIPP Academy also invests families. Enrollment meetings begin with staff telling parents that it is the school’s mission for their child to graduate from college. One of the first documents introduced to new students and their parents is the C3, the Commitment to College Completion, an outline of school policies and values that will ensure students succeed at KIPP and prepare for college. KIPP also holds financial literacy seminars for parents, introducing families to 529 college savings plans that can be started right away.

“Our kids are going to change their families and their communities forever because they’ll be able to say, ‘How do I navigate this process for my younger sibling? How do I navigate this process for my cousin?” Ms. Howarth said. “They’re changing the lives of many, many others. That’s what changes communities.”

Middle school is not too early for the college focus, according to LaTrya Gordon, a KIPP alum. Ms. Gordon was part of KIPP Academy’s first graduating class of eighth graders in 2009. She graduated from her zoned public high school in 2013 and is now a sophomore at Belmont University. Without the college mindset she adopted at KIPP, Ms. Gordon says, college simply would not have been on her radar. She is a first-generation college student. Her peers in high school didn’t talk about going to college – their attention focused less on academics and more on sports and the latest falling out among students.

“KIPP helped me develop the mindset that I can and I will go to college. If I didn’t have that mindset, I would have gotten lost. It’s what helped me pull through and help me overcome some of the tough times,” Ms. Gordon said.

Now, Ms. Gordon is literally going places she’s never been before. This summer she’ll study abroad in Turkey and get a head start on her junior year by earning nine credits overseas.

KIPP Academy gave her the tools she needed to succeed back when she was in middle school. But the support didn’t end there. KIPP Through College (KTC), a program for KIPP alumni, provides advisers to help students successfully complete high school, prepare for college entry, and finish degrees. Ms. Gordon said KTC advisers have attended financial aid meetings with her family, helped her organize study sessions, and assisted with financial planning for her upcoming study abroad trip.

“I’ve been supported in every way possible,” Ms. Gordon said. “They’re not going to hold my hand, but they’re going to hold me accountable and be right with me every step of the way.”

Learn more in this SCORE Prize video shot at KIPP Academy Nashville.