KIPP charter school group plans major expansion in L.A. area

ByHoward Blume

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One of the nation’s largest charter school organizations has announced an ambitious expansion plan to more than double its enrollment in the Los Angeles area over the next six years.

KIPP LA now operates 11 schools that serve about 4,000 students; by 2020, the organization wants to grow to 9,000 students in 20 schools.

The nonprofit is associated with a national umbrella organization called KIPP Schools, which oversees 162 campuses that enroll 58,000 students in 31 regions.

KIPP schools generally perform well when compared by test scores, none more so than the local KIPP Empower Academy. It earned a high ranking of 991 on a scale of 1,000 on California’s Academic Performance Index in the spring of 2013, the most recent year available. The school enrolls students in kindergarten through fourth grade, but the score is based on state standardized tests taken by the school’s second-graders, the school’s highest grade at the time.

“What we really pride ourselves on is focusing on the academics and character, to empower students to be strong in body, mind and spirit,” said Neela Parasnis, the principal — or “school leader,” in KIPP parlance.

Charters are independently managed and free from some rules that govern traditional schools. Critics insist that KIPP, and other charters, draw from a pool of more motivated families: the ones who would make an effort to apply to a charter. And they say that KIPP’s results do not fully account for students who leave a KIPP school early.

KIPP cites research indicating that these common criticisms do not apply to its campuses.

Locally, the data suggest that many KIPP LA students are achieving higher scores than they probably would at many traditional schools. KIPP operates only elementary and middle schools, but it’s begun extended counseling efforts to help its students get to and through college.

Like other charters, KIPP receives philanthropic support, but also often rents or builds its own campuses.

Last year, KIPP Empower operated out of two locations for lack of space. That problem was remedied in March with the opening of an $8-million campus in Vermont Knolls, south of downtown L.A.

The campus offers students “blended learning,” in which teachers use digital curriculum in addition to more traditional approaches. A typical classroom has about 15 laptops and a few iPads. Each fourth-grader gets a Chromebook to use.

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, provides both a longer school day and a longer school year. Like many other KIPP campuses, KIPP Empower typically has a waiting list of families wanting to enroll.

The L.A. Unified School District, which authorizes charter schools within its boundaries, has the role of making sure KIPP maintains its performance standards. The district also will have to compete with KIPP for students.

Enrollment is dropping in many parts of L.A. Unified and the growth of charters has resulted in fewer union teaching jobs within the district. A few KIPP schools across the country have union faculties, but not those in Los Angeles.

Independent charters account for about 16% of district enrollment, according to data on the L.A. Unified’s website. No school district has more charter students, about 100,000, than L.A. Unified, although New Orleans, for example, has a much higher percentage of students in charters.

L.A. has been fertile ground for charters. Several large charter groups started here. One of them, Green Dot Public Schools, has launched a national expansion.