KIPP Columbus commits to its students with lots of help

ByJayne Gest

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When Executive Director Hannah Powell started at KIPP Columbus, five people oversaw 50 students in the fifth grade.

Now heading into its ninth year, the school has over 1,100 students and 115 staff members. It just opened a high school to go along with schools for grades K-3 and 5-8, as well as starting an early learning center in partnership with the YMCA of Central Ohio.

Powell says by the end of the decade KIPP Columbus is on track to have 2,000 kids.

“There’s a lot going on,” she says. “We’ve built about 300,000 square feet in less than three years.”

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, is a national network of public schools for students in underserved communities.

Even though every KIPP School is a little different, Powell says one way the Ohio school is unique is because everything is in one place — 130 acres on a former golf course.

KIPP Columbus typically enrolls students who are two to three grade levels behind, but its students improve at nearly 1.5 times the average growth on reading and math assessments.

That’s partly due to longer days — some students are at the school from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., staff support and an environment of high expectations and commitment, Powell says.

“We deeply believe that all kids can and will learn — and do whatever it takes to help them go to and through college,” she says.

KIPP’s growth strategy has been important, especially as its leaders oversaw a large construction project, but with that, Powell still has to find ways to connect with the kids and families.

“Just because we’ve gotten bigger doesn’t mean that portion of the role goes away,” she says.

KIPP Columbus also isn’t afraid to try new things or take strategic risks. Just like the Albert Einstein quote outside its building states: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

However, Powell does worry about growth bringing the same results and culture.

“I obsess about that — how to actually get better as we get bigger, to make our culture stronger, to scale with excellence,” she says. “We don’t want every year to do what we’re doing just because we’ve done it that way before.”

KIPP Columbus constantly evaluates data, focusing on results, while having clear frameworks to make decisions. She says it already understands what, as an organization, it holds sacred. The vision doesn’t change.

However, they’ve had to codify systems, such as the way new staff are onboarded.

“It used to be that you’re onboarding a couple of people at a time,” she says, “and we’ve had to step back and ask ourselves, ‘What is it that we really believe in? What’s important for everyone to know?’”

It’s also not easy to find people who want to commit to such an intense experience.

“We have it hard a lot of times because our kids have it hard,” she says. “We’re in one of the most underserved, chronically violent, low-income communities in Columbus. We’ve lost over a dozen kids to gun violence since last August.

“At our school we started, we had over 40 lockdowns,” Powell says. “There was a rape of a 13-year-old on our playground. There was a double homicide across the street. So, the trauma, the intensity of that is real, and it plays into everything that we do.”

The school can’t just be about academic achievement; she says character development is just as important for creating conditions for success.

“This isn’t just fluffy and rhetorical. It’s a critical need in our community, and to me, I’m angry about the inequities that exist for our kids and for our community,” Powell says.

Powell uses KIPP’s national network to learn from others.

“I am one that is very quick to ask for help. Anyone who knows me, knows that,” she says.

Powell also receives a lot of support and insight from community partners and her board of directors, as they all try to ensure the students’ needs are always central to the decision-making and focus.

One of the school’s hallmarks is its ability to pull together partnerships, with organizations like the Battelle Memorial Institute, the city of Columbus or the Boy & Girls Clubs of Columbus. This is something unique to KIPP Columbus, Powell says.

You can see the results of its 40 community partners with things like the Battelle Environmental Center that will open this year. It will help educate students and develop teachers, not only for KIPP Columbus’ schools, but others as well.

Asking for help is critical when you’re trying to solve large or complex problems. Powell says you can’t do it in isolation.

As another example, KIPP Columbus is starting a partnership with Nationwide Children’s Hospital to have a full-time behavioral health specialist and a physician’s assistant on staff, to help ensure kids’ basic needs are being met.

Powell understands that KIPP Columbus is just a piece of the collective effort.

“We’re a part of the solution; we’re not the only part,” she says. “We’re committed to working with others in our city who are really trying to make sure that all kids have an opportunity to experience a transformational education.”