KIPP Austin yielding long-lasting results

ByFreddy Gonzalez (op-ed)

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As a 10-year veteran of Austin public education, I’ve seen a lot of vigorous debate about how best to educate students. People have strong opinions about policy, curriculum, testing and more. But the underlying question is always the same: How do we best prepare students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, survive in competitive global society? A new report may help us answer that.

For me, this goes beyond policy debates — it’s personal. I attended South Texas public schools and was the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Within the first few weeks of arriving at Brown University, I realized that I was underprepared for academics at a top-tier college. With a lot of hard work, I was able to successfully graduate on time and ready for graduate school. I went into education right out of grad school, and have spent the past decade as a teacher, principal, and most recently as the chief learning officer with the KIPP Foundation to make sure my students don’t experience what I did.

KIPP Austin is part of the national network of KIPP college-prep public charter schools, educating students from predominantly low-income backgrounds in grades K-12. Our schools offer an extended school day and year, a dual focus on character and academics, and a college guidance and support program called KIPP Through College.

In 2007, KIPP commissioned Mathematica Policy Research to conduct a multiyear independent study of KIPP schools, to show us where we’re strong and where we have room to grow. Last month Mathematica released their newest report on KIPP schools, and a couple of the findings stood out to me:

First, KIPP middle schools have had positive, significant impacts on student achievement throughout the past 10 years. This shows that KIPP’s success is not a fluke — we’ve built systems that are yielding gains over the long haul. We’ve maintained our results even as we’ve dramatically grown: over the past decade, KIPP Austin has evolved from just one middle school educating 320 students to nine schools serving 4,400 students in grades K-12 — and we’re on track to serve 5,400 students by 2020.

From my experience in Austin, growth and quality aren’t mutually exclusive; they go hand-in-hand. As the principal of KIPP Austin College Prep when we were only one school, I was initially concerned that opening other schools might make things more challenging. But the opposite turned out to be true; we could share best practices and pool our resources, helping us all serve students even better.

Second, KIPP high schools are having a positive impact on college preparedness. Among students who finished eighth grade at KIPP, those at KIPP high schools took more AP classes, had more conversations with college counselors, and were more likely to apply to at least one college than those who went to non-KIPP high schools. Ultimately, this is what we’re most interested in. Academics are important, but we really want our students to succeed in college.

This gets right to the heart of what was missing about my undergrad experience: having enough advance preparation. All students in Austin should have access to these resources. They should have counseling that helps them find the right school for them, and access to college-prep courses that ensure they’ll be able to enroll in classes at the right level.

These findings show that it’s possible for public charter schools to grow while maintaining a high level of quality. In fact, a growing charter school network can raise the bar for all its schools. They also show that we can effectively increase our students’ college preparedness in high school by offering consistent college counseling and college-level instruction. This is a powerful affirmation, not just of KIPP’s work, but of the work that educators are doing across the state of Texas to get more and more students on the path to and through college.

There’s still plenty of work to do. We’ll be using Mathematica’s research as a guide to get even better in the years to come. As we move forward, we’ll stay focused on our students’ growth and college readiness, so that we can be sure they’re prepared for a life full of opportunities.