Don Fisher Takes KIPP Nationwide

  • Education
  • 2000

For education-reform advocates, the KIPP Schools are among the greatest successes of recent history. Started in 1994 by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two teachers fresh from Teach For America stints, KIPP dramatically improves educational opportunities in urban areas by creating high-performing “no-excuses” charter schools in the most neglected neighborhoods of their cities. The schools rely on many innovations: carefully selected principals, a particular style of bright and dedicated teacher, more school time (including Saturday classes and a longer school year), strict rules on behavior, a culture of high expectations, contracts signed by students, parents, and teachers. Despite remarkable student results and growing reputation, in 2000 the KIPP portfolio consisted of just one school in Houston and another in the Bronx. That’s when Don Fisher came along. The founder and longtime CEO of the Gap, Fisher closely examined KIPP’s successes and was sufficiently impressed to give Levin and Feinberg $15 million, plus lots of intense guidance on organization and management, to take their model nationwide. An additional $20 million changed hands over the following four years. Fisher chaired the KIPP board for years.

Fisher and the KIPP leaders eventually decided that the training of principals would be the best way to accelerate the creation of excellent new schools. Today KIPP runs five renowned programs for building leadership skills in principals, assistant principals, and other leaders, plus a teacher leader program that prepares them to be grade-level head, department chair, or Saturday-school coordinator. The top two donor-endowed efforts are the Fisher Fellowship (which prepares individuals to open new KIPP schools) and the Miles Family Fellowship (which instructs leaders while they serve in existing KIPP schools).

KIPP’s combination of intense staff training, high and uncompromising standards, and decentralized operational control allowed the network to mushroom from just two schools to a total of 183 campuses in 20 states plus D.C. by 2015, serving nearly 70,000 children. Most remarkably, it expanded in this way with no diminution of academic quality or student-performance results. Though the vast majority of its students are poor and from minority backgrounds, KIPP produces a 93 percent graduation rate and 83 percent college placement. Thousands of donors now support the KIPP schools, including dozens that make seven-figure annual donations—like the Walton, Arnold, Broad, Dell, Robertson, and Wallace foundations, and individuals like Thomas and Susan Dunn, Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin, and Arthur Rock and Toni Rembe in recent years.

But no philanthropists have contributed more to the success of KIPP than the Fisher family, which has now given about $80 million (and counting) to enhance and expand the network. And KIPP is just one of several places where Don Fisher germinated spectacular educational reforms; he was also a pioneer funder of Teach For America, the New Teacher Project, the Charter School Growth Fund, the California Charter Schools Association, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, StudentsFirst, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and other landmark organizations. As his biography in the Philanthropy Hall of Fame notes, Don Fisher “may have been the most consequential” funder of U.S. education reform in the modern era. “Fisher was among the very first to find and fund almost all of the most promising ideas and programs of the last 50 years. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for discovering effective people, which was coupled to a fierce independent streak that encouraged him to back them long before anyone else.”