Frances Scarlen Martinez was one of the first students to attend the first KIPP school in the Bronx. David Levin came knocking on her family’s door, recruiting students. Her family taught her that education was the key to success and she eagerly accepted the invitation, feeling fortunate to have been chosen. In the years since, she has a different view of her experience at KIPP. What she remembers most now was the strict control under which she lived.

She writes:

“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.”

On reflection, she realized she was part of a “culture of submission” that obliterated her own identity. For most of us, school is a place to explore who we are, what we believe, and what we hope to be. For Frances, school meant submit and obey.

This article is part of a series called “Public Voices for Public Schools,” posted by the Network for Public Education.