A chant resembling a rally at a college stadium rang from a first-grade classroom at the Baltimore charter school KIPP Harmony Academy. "M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D," the children sang, pumping their fists. "Maryland will win!"
This week's activity helped introduce the 5- and 6-year-olds to a new school year at KIPP, where conversations about "climbing the mountain to college" begin in kindergarten and classrooms take on the identity of colleges and universities that children can aspire to attend.
For the dozens of students in the designated University of Maryland classroom, where red and black don the walls and pencil holders are labeled "Comcast Center" and "Tydings Hall," the exercise could become a glimpse of the future under a unique partnership announced Thursday.
The University of Maryland, College Park is the latest to enter a formal agreement with the national Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter-school network, committing to actively recruit qualified alumni from KIPP's Baltimore and Washington programs and provide them with academic, financial and social support.
Maryland is the 39th higher education institution — and the first in the state — to join a growing list of college and universities, including Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, in partnering with the high-profile charter-school organization. For 18 years, KIPP has worked to carve paths to college for poor and minority students across the country.
"We highly value having a diverse student population on our campus, and this meets our own goals and priorities," said Donna Hamilton, Maryland's associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies. "In order to have a strong program, you need to find talent from everywhere. And wherever we can find highly talented, high-achieving students, we want them to come to Maryland."
Under the agreement, Maryland would pursue eight to 12 students per year and help address their full financial need by helping them tap various funding sources, including scholarships. The university also committed to providing social resources, mentoring and other support KIPP students may need.
The promise of the pact already is resonating with Baltimore students and their parents.
Latasha Lee, whose first-grader is in the Maryland classroom, said her son can now aspire to attend Maryland for reasons besides liking the turtle mascot.
"He feels like he has a destined place to go after his regular schooling, a place that wants him," Lee said.
And just two weeks before fall semester classes start at Maryland, Jasmine Drummond still is wrapping her mind around the fact that she will be attending College Park.
She is one of two KIPP Baltimore students who received a full scholarship to Maryland under the new partnership this year.
Two years ago, Drummond was hauling her belongings with her to school, unsure where she and her family were sleeping at day's end.
"It's something that you don't get over," said Drummond, beaming one recent day in Maryland's McKeldin Library. "I wake up every day and say, 'Wow, I'm going to college for free.' And it's mindblowing, every day."
KIPP educates about 1,200 students on its Northwest Baltimore campus. KIPP Harmony serves kindergarten through fourth grade; KIPP Ujima Village Academy serves grades five through eight.
There is no KIPP high school in the city, but under its model, a counselor is assigned to students throughout their educational careers. The university agreement applies to all students who matriculated from KIPP schools.
Through the pact, Maryland admitted Drummond and her classmate Nebreyia Scott to its Incentive Awards Program, which specifically supports students from challenging backgrounds. The program and a $250,000 donation from Chuck Daggs, a KIPP board member and Maryland alumnus, secured the girls' tuitions, meals, books and housing for the next four years.
"This opportunity is so valuable because most people consider your intelligence, your athletic ability, but sometimes it seems like no one considers your struggle," Drummond said. "It's a blessing."
Scott said she believes it's no coincidence that the next phase of her life is linked to KIPP.
At KIPP, she could do her homework under light when tight finances meant electric outages at home. At KIPP, she filled out an application her counselor put in front of her, not knowing that she was securing a full scholarship to the St. Paul's School for Girls.
Now Maryland has joined the longstanding team effort to help her succeed, Scott said.
"I like to think that I can't do things by myself, not because I'm not independent but I just like to have people around me who believe I can do it," she said. "At KIPP, they never made me worry about money. They just said, 'Do what you're supposed to do and we'll figure the rest out.' And here I am."
Helping students figure out life after KIPP is what the university partnership is all about, KIPP officials said.
"We don't expect all of our kids to go to college, or finish college, but we want them to have the choice," said a KIPP spokesman, Steve Mancini. "We believe that college is so critical for kids who are growing up in low-income communities, and we're going to give as many of them as we can the opportunities to walk through that door. This partnership is a means to that end."
KIPP began shopping the agreements to colleges in 2011, after a study showed that while many of its students were heading to college -- 89 percent -- very few were obtaining a degree in four years.
The 33 percent of KIPP students who completed college mirrored the nation's 31 percent rate and was more than four times the 8 percent rate of low-income students.
Since that report, KIPP officials said, the graduation rate has risen to 40 percent. But their goal is to double it to 80 percent, bringing its students onto par with peers from high-income backgrounds.
To do that, KIPP offered colleges and universities a chance to tap their pipeline of more than 50,000 students — 87 percent of whom are low-income and 95 percent of whom are black or Latino. They are educated under a rigorous academic model that emphasizes character development and boasts a 95 percent high-school graduation rate.
In return, KIPP wanted commitments from colleges and universities to eliminate barriers, such as affordability and social engagement, found to be key reasons students didn't finish college.
Mancini said that the college completion report offered a dose of humility but also renewed confidence in the mission of the organization, whose schools are among the highest-performing in cities across the nation, including Baltimore. KIPP Ujima posted the highest eighth-grade test scores this past year.
"Our goal is not to have kids who are the best eighth-grade test-takers," Mancini said. "We want kids who will go on to be successful, and be happy in their lives and their careers. And we believe that having access to college is the key to unlock that future for kids."
Jasmine's mother, Tracey Drummond, fell on hard times after a divorce and worried about whether her daughter would be able to attend college, let alone one that she never thought was an option.
She described Jasmine's scholarship as "confirmation that God was still in it with us."
"It meant that, as much as I worry about housing and a job, Jasmine is going to be on that campus," Drummond said through tears. "And that's one less child I have to drag through this poverty thing. It's more than just her tuition is paid. That's her segue into being independent and taking care of herself."
While the partnerships were spurred by a desire to improve KIPP's college completion rates, they also aim to bridge gaps between high-profile colleges and hard-to-reach or underrepresented populations.
At Maryland, for instance, the number of students from Baltimore City who enroll as undergraduates is drastically lower than that of other large school districts around the state.
In 2012, only 337 students from Baltimore City enrolled, many of them from private schools.
That year, more than 7,200 students enrolled from Montgomery County, and Howard and Prince George's counties sent more than 2,200 students each. Roughly 1,800 students from Baltimore County enrolled, while 1,619 came from Anne Arundel County.
Parents of current KIPP students said they hope that in a dozen or so years, their students can help enrollment from the city grow.
KIPP parent Ciara Walker said she did not attend college but she has always been intent on her daughter doing so. Her first-grader decided last year that she is going to Michigan State University.
"I was expecting to have to tell her to go to college, so for her to come home and tell me that she's going, I just loved that," Walker said. "Hopefully, now with Maryland signing on, she'll stay a little closer, though she's told me since kindergarten she's leaving me. I guess I have 12 years to prepare."