Beating Newark's odds, KIPP charter network is poised to expand


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It is an unlikely place to see so many children celebrating college acceptance letters.

Here in the heart of Newark, a poor and violent city, sits a passage to another world. Just blocks from Barringer High School — where at least a dozen gangs recruit, cops break up fights with pepper spray, a girl was sexually assaulted and a boy stabbed to death — Newark Collegiate Academy is an oasis.

In a city where almost half the students don’t graduate, nearly all its kids finish, and a remarkable 95 percent of them go on to college.

This isn’t supposed to happen. The first rule of education in America is that poverty breeds failure. You can find 100 studies to show that. It’s normally true.

But the Academy is part of a national chain of charter schools, the KIPP schools — short for “Knowledge is Power Program” — that is proving the skeptics wrong.

Formerly known as the “TEAM Schools,” KIPP has seven charters with 2,700 kids in Newark and plans to expand into Camden. Its diligent students in matching blue polo shirts attend classrooms named for top colleges like “NYU” — one of the many places KIPP seniors were accepted last year.

Their school sends more African American boys and girls to college than any other in Newark, and more than the entire city of Camden did last year. One KIPP elementary school even outscored Montclair kids in 2013, a much higher income group.

Many people in New Jersey have no clue about this jewel in their midst. After decades of pouring huge sums of money into traditional urban schools, with mixed results, their skepticism is understandable.

Critics of charters say they give themselves a head start by selecting better students to begin with, and expelling troubled kids, and some do. But KIPP makes a huge effort to find kids in need, and has built a demographic profile that closely matches the city. It’s not the only success in Newark. But no district school, not even Science Park — a top magnet with selective enrollment — sends so many kids to college.

In Newark, word is out. At last count, nearly 10,000 families were on a waiting list to get their children in. Another remarkable charter chain, North Star Academy, is achieving the same kind of success, and had a similar waiting list of thousands.

This, in a city where we are supposed to believe parents don’t care much about education.

For 18-year-old Muhammad Hall, a senior at Newark Collegiate, KIPP is his ticket out. When he got early word he’d been accepted to Rowan University, he leapt out of his chair, clenched his fists and bowed his head in silent thanks.

It’s his top choice, where he hopes to major in business management. He talks excitedly about the grassy campus, where he could walk around without his phone buried in his pocket, always looking behind his back to see if someone is following him.

“I like that school, it just makes me feel at home,” he said. “I have to get up out of Newark. It’s too much for me. The killings…” He trailed off. 

Before returning to AP statistics, he pointed to the year 2015, emblazoned across his chest. He got this T-shirt from KIPP back in 8th grade, in anticipation of the year he would graduate.


“We’re making it happen,” he said, with a grin.



KIPP aims to do the same in Camden. In the poorest city and one of the worst districts in the nation, it opened its doors to its first class of kindergarteners this year, in a temporary trailer.


Bryan Morton’s daughter Isabella got one of the last available slots. Within 6 months, he went from wondering whether she had a learning disability to seeing her test at nearly a first grade level.


“Mine is not an individual experience,” he said. “There are kids outpacing Bella. One kid took the math assessment and ranked in the 98th percentile. Only two percent of other kindergarteners in the country are doing better than him.”


“We’re very happy with KIPP, beyond happy,” he added. “My little five-year-old can read.”

So how does KIPP do it?


A big part is extra teachers and time on task. KIPP has two instructors in every classroom, and while it no longer has extended hours each day, it does have a longer school year and some half-day Saturdays. Another important factor is KIPP’s ability to maximize money spent in the classroom.


No state has tried harder than New Jersey to help poor kids get a good education, thanks to a series of rulings by the state Supreme Court that lifted spending in places like Newark to equal or exceed spending in most of the richest suburbs.


Yet the results have been frustrating. The achievement gap closed slightly, and in districts that made the best use of the money, like Union City, kids were matching nearby suburbs on test scores.


You see the pitfalls, however, in a district like Camden. The state spent a whopping $27,500 per pupil there last year — almost double what is spent across the river in Philadelphia. Yet only 49 percent of Camden kids graduate. Just three of the 882 who took the SAT in a recent year tested “college ready.”


The charter movement has proven beyond doubt that this is not all about money. These schools get less public money than conventional ones to operate, and nothing at all for buildings.


Still, KIPP and a few other charter organizations, like North Star Academies, have shown that urban kids can make the grade. With freedom from the union rules and wasteful central bureaucracies of district schools, they are doing more with less.


To understand how charters benefit from less regulation, consider the infamous story about the air conditioners at George Washington Carver, one of the lowest-performing schools in the district, which shared a building with a KIPP charter school, Spark.

When Spark ordered units for its classrooms, it caused some resentment downstairs, so KIPP’s board chipped in to buy them for Carver, too. Yet while KIPP paid $400 apiece to buy and install its own units, it had to pay more than $700 for the district’s, not including installation, and they took an entire year to put in.


Why? Because the district has to solicit proposals, get bids, then follow all the rules set by the installer and electricians’ unions. It loses time and money. The same applies to hiring a guidance counselor. KIPP can get around onerous state requirements by hiring alums and putting them through life coach training. But the district has to hire a certified counselor with a set salary.


That inflexibility is a widespread problem. At KIPP, teachers can come in on weekends to tutor kids, but they often aren’t allowed to in the district. While the district has to pay for underutilized buildings, KIPP just rents the space it actually uses. And even though the district gets more per-student funding, it still spends far more of it on central offices, a giant money sinkhole.


Spark gets $17,000 per student from the state, and a typical district elementary school gets at least $18,000. Not a huge difference. But of that amount, Spark has significantly more money under the direct control of its principal, for teachers and other classroom costs: $14,000, as compared to the district’s $8,000.


The extra $6,000 helps pay for KIPP’s extra resources, like two teachers in a classroom, while the central district is paying for an overfed bureaucracy.


“These are problems that all urban districts have,” says Ryan Hill, who founded the KIPP schools in Newark. “We are able to do what we can for our kids, without the chains of inertia or policy.”


Yet despite KIPP’s success, a movement is underway to try to stop its expansion.

Some of it is the natural friction over jobs. As about 30 percent of Newark’s kids go to charter schools, projected to grow to 40 percent by 2016, the district shrinks and has to lay off teachers.

Traditionalists also don’t like the idea of breaking off from the main public school system. They argue KIPP’s success is too good to be true, a product of statistical quirks that can’t be replicated with an entire district of students.

But these critics seemed blinded by ideology, a misplaced loyalty to educational tradition. Mathematica, a respected non-partisan research institute, studied KIPP schools nationally and found they did better than traditional schools, even with similarly disadvantaged kids.

And in Camden, KIPP is breaking its model by abandoning its lottery taking all kids from the local neighborhood, whether their parents ask for it or not.

Still, the critics aren’t satisfied.

Julia Sass Rubin, founder of the activist group Save Our Schools, argues district schools shouldn’t ever be shut down or replaced, no matter how bad their test scores may be. She says she can’t imagine the state closing schools in places like Princeton or Montclair, so it shouldn’t happen in Newark or Camden, either.

“Who gets to decide that it’s ok to override the local community because we think their schools are not good?” she said. “I don’t think it’s clear what a good school is. Low-income students generally don’t score well on standardized tests. Neighborhood schools provide stability; they have teachers who are there for many years. I would never presume to tell a parent, ‘You don’t know what’s right for your kid.'”

The irony is that Rubin’s group is pushing for new restrictions on expanding or opening charter schools, a move that would deny options to the thousands on waiting lists.

Morton, the KIPP father in Camden, has a wife on the school board, and some of their close relatives defend failing schools. But he doesn’t think loyalty to an alma mater should trump the fact that the average third grader is a first grade reader — or worse.

“They’ll say, my child is on the honor roll,” he says. “And I’ll say, what does that mean if that school is failing?”

So far, there’s been hardly any local opposition to KIPP in Camden, where most district teachers don’t live in the city. “It would be very hypocritical to see them argue for the status quo and have to answer to, ‘Where does your child go to school?'” Morton says.

But for the teachers’ union and its supporters, the stakes are much bigger than Newark or Camden. KIPP is a system that threatens to force school closures and job losses. Bishop Reginald Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orange, the former head of New Jersey’s Black Ministers Council, says he responds to that with very simple question.

Schools are failing. That means kids are failing. So who, in the end, are schools supposed to serve — the children or the adults?
More about KIPP kids:

– Their elementary and high schools equal or outperform the average for the state of New Jersey, even though the students are much poorer.

– They close the achievement gap and surpass national averages in reading and math by 8th grade.

– 88 percent receive free or reduced meals, a measure of poverty. In Newark district schools, it’s 85 percent.

– 92 percent are African American

– 95 percent of seniors went to college last year

– When KIPP’s founding class of students finished fourth grade, they scored better in math than 70 percent of kids in the nation, and better in reading than 61 percent.

Sources: KIPP New Jersey, NWEA MAP assessment
To college, and beyond

KIPP takes in private donations, but says its schools only need to dip into that pot while they are growing. At full size, they break even on public funds, including many, if not all, management costs.

KIPP does raise money for its exceptional college program. Once a student completes 8th grade, regardless of whether he or she stays with KIPP, a team of staffers tracks him or her all the way through college.


KIPP isn’t just concerned with how many of its students go to college, but how many actually get a degree. About 44 percent of its original Newark class of 2010 has earned a degree, or is on track to do so within 6 years of high school graduation. That compares to 8 percent for low-income students in general, and 32 percent for all American kids.


But it’s still far below well-off students, 82 percent of whom earn degrees. To try to shrink that gap, KIPP staffers give out $500 book stipends, visit former students twice a year and call incessantly. They know they’re up against a single setback – anything from a lost job to a murdered parent.