KIPP charter school wants to build on success

ByElisa Crouch

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For four years, they went to school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., then completed two hours of homework each night. They attended classes on Saturdays. Their school years started in July, cutting one month off their summers.

As a result, the class of fifth-graders who entered KIPP Inspire Academy in 2009, many with a third-grade understanding of reading and math, completed eighth grade last week, bound for some of the most prestigious college prep high schools in the region.

Many now have a 10th-grade understanding of those subjects, School Leader Jeremy Esposito told parents and supporters at the eighth-grade promotion ceremony last week at Washington University.

“Over the last four years, you’ve worked harder than anyone else in this city,” he said to the 72 departing eighth-graders. “You’ve literally proven what’s possible when given a real high-quality education.”

Organizers of this top-performing charter school plan to open an elementary school in fall 2014, with the same intensive support that is proving successful at the middle school in the Fox Park neighborhood.

They have a vision of eventually creating a cluster of five schools here — the equivalent in size of a small school district.

All would focus on helping disadvantaged students reach, and graduate from, college.

The schools would build on the success of KIPP Inspire Academy, which opened with a single class of fifth-graders in the old high school building at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church on Ohio Avenue. The school now has 320 students.

The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is a nonprofit network of charter schools. With 125 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C., it’s the largest chain of charter schools in the nation.

The time and intensity of the KIPP program is greater than most traditional public schools. Charters are free public schools with independent operators.

KIPP students have longer days and school years than their peers in traditional public schools. They are overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families. Yet they are expected to perform at the same levels as their peers in more affluent schools, making KIPP schools a flash point for some who question whether meeting such goals is possible.

At KIPP Inspire, the departing eighth-graders showed significant gains each year. When they arrived as fifth-graders, 34 percent of them tested at grade level in math, and 22 percent in English, according to results from the Missouri Assessment Program. By the end of seventh grade, their passing rates had about doubled, with 67 percent at or above grade level in math, and 44 percent in English. This year’s scores won’t be available until later this summer.

Opening an elementary school next year should help more disadvantaged youths to achieve academically, KIPP St. Louis organizers say. The site will be north of Delmar. Specifics have yet to be announced.

“If we can start younger, we can have even greater impact in kids’ lives,” said Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis.

KIPP St. Louis is bolstered by political and civic support. Maxine Clark, founder of Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc., is chairwoman. Washington University is the sponsor. Mayor Francis Slay spoke at the eighth-grade promotion. Afterward, he posted on Twitter: “KIPP remains one of the brightest hopes for education in STL.”

Byron Clemens, regional vice president of American Federation of Teachers St. Louis Local 420, said it’s too early to declare victory with just a few years of data.

“We’ll have to see if it plays out over the long haul,” he said. “If something is successful it should be replicated and not just be a proprietary island.”

Nationally, KIPP’s approach to education has made it the most studied charter school organization in the country.

In February, one of the largest studies of KIPP middle schools reported that their impact on student achievement is “positive, statistically significant and educationally substantial.” Mathematica Policy Research, a firm based in New Jersey, examined 43 KIPP middle schools for the study. Using standardized test scores, it estimated that students were growing academically by an additional 11 months in math after three years at KIPP than they would have otherwise. In reading, students were getting eight months of extra learning. In science and social studies, the amounts were 14 and 11 months, respectively.

This extra learning doesn’t come easy, students say.

“It was hard,” said De’Ja Wood, a departing eighth-grader who moved to the city in 2009 and transferred to KIPP from a school in the unaccredited Riverview Gardens School District. “A lot of times I wanted to give up.”

Next year, De’Ja will attend the private Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School.

Her classmate Ameer Ali transferred to KIPP as a sixth-grader from St. Louis Public Schools. He arrived uninspired and behind, said his father, Farrad Ali.

But by the end of Ameer’s sixth-grade year, that had changed.

“They put them in a setting where they can learn,” Farrad Ali said. “I’m pleased with the turnout so far.” Ameer is set to attend the private Christian Brothers College high school in the fall.

The departing students will be attending a range of city magnet, private college prep and charter high schools next year.

But the final goal is college completion.

According to 2012 data collected by KIPP, 40 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. This exceeds the U.S. Census estimate that 31 percent of Americans between ages 25 and 29 have earned a college degree. And it’s a rate that’s more than four times higher than that of comparable students from low-income communities across the country.

But neither is good enough for KIPP organizers, whose stated aim is to put all of their students on track to earn college degrees, no matter where they end up in high school. Nationally, KIPP’s goal is for 75 percent of the students who’ve completed its schools to earn college degrees.

“It’s not over with yet,” said Farrad Ali, Ameer’s father, pointing out his son has four years of high school before he can set foot on a college campus. “We will see. Hats off to KIPP. They have given him the tools to succeed.”