At KIPP, a charter puts kids first

KIPP Columbus's new school building

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KIPP Columbus is a happy example of what can happen when charter-school operators view their work as an investment that enriches the future of children, rather than themselves.

KIPP Columbus — part of the Knowledge is Power Program nationwide charter network — has advantages that many other charter schools don’t. It was brought to Columbus by community leaders, and benefactors have donated tens of millions of dollars to give the school gleaming new buildings. The school this year added grades 9 and 10 in a new high-school building and opened a standalone life-sciences lab with a grant from Battelle.

But the investment that really makes KIPP special began in 1994, when two former teachers started a fifth-grade program in a Houston elementary. They believed that high expectations, more time with students, and intense commitment from teachers could help even the most-deprived, furthest-behind students achieve.

They were right. The KIPP middle schools they opened in Houston and New York achieved such striking results that investors have helped the program to grow to nearly 200 schools, with grades K-12.

Every KIPP teacher invests heavily in the school’s success, by signing on for longer school days, including some Saturdays and summer days, and promising to be available to students by cellphone after hours. KIPP students are expected to invest time, attention and hard work into their education.

It’s paying off: While kids come in academically far behind, testing shows they advance quickly. And, impressively, KIPP tracks students after they leave for other high schools and college. KIPP alumni nationwide have double the graduation rate of other low-income schoolchildren, and they graduate from college at four times the national average for low-income students.

KIPP isn’t the only central Ohio charter school to benefit from investment; The Graham School and Charles School partner with Ohio Dominican University and several educational foundations. Columbus Preparatory Academy, Columbus Collegiate Academy and others achieve great results with teachers who care and methods that work.

Compare that investment of time, talent and philanthropy in successful charter schools with the approach taken by the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) online schools and the White Hat family of schools — arguably Ohio’s worst charters.

Rather than investing in kids, their owners mastered the use of Ohio’s weak charter-school regulation to make personal fortunes. The networks of schools they established technically are nonprofit, but they also operate for-profit companies that sell management services, educational software and the like to the schools they control.

It’s a handy setup; ECOT founder William J. Lager was broke in 2000, when he persuaded a sponsor to back his idea for an online school. By 2016, ECOT had collected more than $1 billion from taxpayers, $170 million of which went to Lager’s for-profit companies.

ECOT students haven’t fared so well. Very few of them are able to pass state proficiency tests and fewer than 40 percent graduate from high school. ECOT now proposes to refashion itself as a dropout-prevention school, allowing it to meet even lower standards.

Charter schools were meant to allow educational innovators to give children solid alternatives to traditional school districts. Successful charter schools require investments in kids. KIPP shows how it’s done.