Charters Can Help Struggling Schools Succeed

ByRichard Barth

In the cities in which we work, too many children attend schools that are — empirically — failing them. This is not a case of personal judgment. City leaders and civic leaders across the country have come to these conclusions, and in recent years they have reached out to us to explore the possibility of working in partnership to “re-start” campuses and create schools in which students can learn. Initially, we were cautious.

History has shown that achieving success in re-starting a school is difficult.

When we decided to first say yes to opportunities to partner with districts and charter operators seeking a new approach to lift low-performing schools, we set parameters for what conditions we believe we need to succeed in transforming a school’s academics and culture: we would only try this in communities where KIPP had existing, strong local leadership and sufficient infrastructure to support existing schools and this new work.

Since 2014, when we opened ourselves up to this possibility, we have partnered with communities to re-start six schools: two in the District of Columbia, one each in Newark and Camden, New Jersey, one in Nashville, Tennessee, and one in Atlanta. We are still early in this work, but the results are encouraging. We have been able to make a real impact on student outcomes. We have created environments where children want to come to school every day.

We have kept schools open that might otherwise have closed, allowing communities to keep their neighborhood school.

Two of our longest running school re-starts are KIPP DC Arts & Technology Academy and KIPP Kirkpatrick in Nashville, Tennessee. Kirkpatrick Enhanced Option Elementary School had been through three principals in five years, including high staff turnover.

On any given day, 1 in 3 students was not in school. Of all the elementary and middle schools in Davidson County, Kirkpatrick was the lowest performing; and it was the eighth lowest performing school in the state of Tennessee. Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Director of Schools, Jesse Register, chose Kirkpatrick because its need was more dire than any other school. As an Enhanced Option school, it was already engaged in an improvement effort. The school day had been extended and the teacher-student ratios had been reduced. This was not a case where leaders were sitting on their hands, accepting the current performance. Despite dedicated effort, the school had gone through multiple internal turnaround efforts and hadn’t seen progress.

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