25 years in, KIPP is planning further expansion and trying to turn its alumni into a political force

ByKalyn Belsha
Photo shows the crowds at the main stage at the 2019 KIPP School Summit

HOUSTON — A lot has changed in the seven years since teacher Nadia Abdalah helped to open a KIPP charter school in Austin, Texas.

“We very seldom ask for something that’s for the kids that’s not provided for us,” Abdalah said. “There’s power in numbers.”

Abdalah is not the only one to take note of the benefits that have come with KIPP’s growth, as it’s transformed over the last 25 years from a single middle school into the largest nonprofit charter school network in the country.

As of this summer, network officials say, KIPP will educate more than 100,000 students in 242 schools across 20 states and Washington, D.C. And KIPP is still growing, thanks in large part to many years of federal support. Just this year, KIPP won an $88 million federal grant to open or expand dozens more schools over the next five years.

The scale of that growth was on display at the charter network’s annual summit this week, where some 6,000 educators and alumni gathered in Houston to attend trainings and celebrate the charter network’s 25th anniversary.

Some elements were new: KIPP aimed a portion of the event at adult alumni, offering help with things like money management and mental health, and officials said more formal efforts to connect alumni are in the works. (It was also the first national summit since KIPP fired one of its co-founders, Mike Feinberg, following an investigation into allegations of past sexual misconduct with a student and two alumni.)

Other aspects, including a full day devoted to race and equity, reflected discussions that have been going on for years within KIPP about the right kinds of student discipline to employ, the shrinking but still sizable racial divide between its students and staff, and whether schools should relax their laser-like focus on college for all.

Speaking to the thousands of attendees, KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth said he had been listening, and recognized the ongoing tensions.

KIPP’s goal now, he said, was to create schools that are both “joyful” and “academically excellent” and to prepare students for whatever paths they may take, whether that be college or something else.

“The foundation of all of this work rests on a commitment to equity and racial justice,” Barth told the audience. That, he added, meant taking stock of his own identity as the white, male head of a charter network that serves nearly all black and Hispanic students. “It’s my job to become ever more aware of the biases I bring and to also disrupt inequities wherever I see them.”

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