Scaling up for success: KIPP's formula for great schools

ByNaomi Schaefer Riley

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Twenty years ago, two Teach for America alumni launched a small academy with 47 kids inside a traditional public school in Houston.

Today, KIPP academies are educating 58,000 kids in 20 states across the country and last week, the KIPP Foundation was awarded the third annual Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools.

The $250,000 award is another feather in the cap of a charter-school network that for two decades has been bringing a high-quality education to an overwhelmingly low-income and minority population and now comprises 31 separate local organizations that run 162 public charter schools.

(The KIPP Foundation provides training and support for KIPP educators and ensures quality across the network.)

This fall, the 11 KIPP-NYC schools will educate 4,250 students in Brooklyn, Harlem and the South Bronx.

More than 93 percent of KIPP students have gone on to graduate high school and more than 83 percent have gone to college. But that wasn’t enough for the network’s leaders.

A few years ago, they realized that many of their kids weren’t finishing college. They lacked the kind of resilience and “grit” necessary to get through.

And so KIPP began to work on training high-school students for the college experience — for instance, giving them more independence in their studies. It also formed partnerships with more than 50 universities — from Brown to Berkeley, the University of Maryland to Spellman.

The schools promise to take a certain number of KIPP graduates and provide them with mentorship and in some cases scholarship money.

The college-completion numbers are steadily improving. For students who finished 8th grade at a KIPP school 10 or more years ago, 44 percent have earned four-year college degrees.

By comparison, the average for all Americans under age 30 is 29 percent, and the average for students from the nation’s lowest-income families is only 8 percent.

But the rate for students in the highest US economic quartile is around 77 percent. In other words, says KIPP spokesman Steven Mancini, “We still have a ways to go.”

That attitude impressed the panelists assembled to judge the Broad Prize.

One of them, Nelson Smith, a senior adviser to the National Association of Charter School Operators, says KIPP was “willing to look at their model and say ‘OK isn’t good enough.

What do we have to do to make it exemplary?’”

What is the secret to KIPP’s success? Its schools use different curricula, but they’re all committed to the “five pillars” of the Knowledge Is Power Program:

High expectations — for both students and teachers.

Choice and commitment: “Students, their parents, and the faculty of each KIPP school choose to participate in the program. No one is assigned or forced to attend a KIPP school.”

More time: KIPP charters have longer school days, weeks and years than most other public schools.

Power to lead: School leaders “have control over their school budget and personnel. They are free to swiftly move dollars or make staffing changes, allowing them maximum effectiveness in helping students learn.”

A focus on results.

Here’s one example of how this translates into action: KIPP gives all its new principals a full year of training, with lessons on management and effective leadership, and also several months shadowing a successful principal.

In the final part of training, KIPP provides support as principals go out and recruit new teachers and new students, building relationships in their local community.

Of course, “focus on results” is common to most successful charters.

It’s one reason why Broad only offers the award for charter-school networks, which operate a minimum of five schools for at least four years and enrolled at least 2,500 students each year:

Only when a model is measured over a large scale is it possible to see what’s really working.

A common charge against charters is that their models can’t be “scaled up.”

By focusing on these large networks, the Broad Foundation also draws attention to the fact that charters can scale up — KIPP’s 58,000 students in 162 schools is larger than most US school districts, and KIPP’s not the largest charter network.

Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, notes that, while charters won’t replace traditional school districts anytime soon, they’re a “healthy alternative” to the failing district schools that many underprivileged kids are stuck in.

And public schools like KIPP, he says, are most powerful as a “direct retort to people who say we must first end poverty before we can do anything to improve education.” Citing the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Finn notes: “The actual proves the possible.”