Albany's KIPP: Tech Valley preps to open charter primary school

ByBethany Bump

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On a lazy day in June, two months before kindergarten would open at a brand new charter school in Albany, 5-year-old Taylan Davis made some promises to the nicely dressed adults sitting on his living room couch.

“Promise No. 1,” he repeated after them, “I will be nice every day.”

“Promise No. 2,” he continued, “I will work hard every day.”

“Promise No. 3,” he finished, “I will be safe every day.”

The late spring visit by Maya Tucci and Donny Applyrs, the co-founders and leaders of KIPP: Tech Valley’s new primary school, was a reassuring experience, Taylan’s parents said, after the educators left. Not that they had ever doubted the value of a KIPP education, where the acronym in the school’s name stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. From the first moment they first set foot in a KIPP school — four years ago on the hunt for a middle school for their oldest child — they knew they had found the right place.

“We met with a lot of teachers, a lot of principals, and you could see the dedication and enthusiasm in their eyes and faces the moment you walked in,” said Damion Davis, who moved his family from the Bronx to Albany in 2006.

Eleven years after KIPP: Tech Valley opened a middle school in Albany, school leaders are ready to expand with an elementary school. The KIPP: Tech Valley Primary Charter School will open at 1 Dudley Heights on Aug. 8, starting with 100 students in kindergarten and adding one grade each year until it’s serving about 500 students across grades K-4 by the 2020-21 school year.

The growth is an unusual occurrence for a charter school in Albany, which as a result of poor academic performance lost five of these publicly funded, privately operated schools in the past five years

But growth is not so unusual for KIPP these days. After finding success with middle schools across the country, the national charter school network has begun adding elementary and high school to its roster of open enrollment schools — where students from any area school district may enroll on a first-come, first-served basis.

Now Albany’s longest surviving charter school, KIPP Tech Valley is hoping the new primary school will allow it to reach students earlier in their academic lives so that literacy and math skills are not so far behind when they enter fifth grade at the middle school.

“What we found in fifth grade is that a lot of our students were not coming in proficient in basic math and ELA (English language arts) skills,” Applyrs said. “A lot of our time is spent catching up, so it made sense that if we could start earlier we should.”

KIPP has outperformed other public schools in the city on state assessments, with English and math proficiency sometimes double that of district schools. In the 2014-15 school year, fifth-graders at KIPP were more proficient in English (18 percent) than those at district schools (15 percent), but the achievement gap increased with each successive grade until 40 percent of eighth-graders at KIPP were proficient compared to 19 percent at district schools.

That performance is perhaps why the charter has survived so long, its leaders say. The SUNY Board of Trustees, which authorizes six charter schools in Albany, has granted full five-year renewals to Kipp each time its charter has come up for renewal.

So far, Tucci and Applyrs have recruited 88 kindergarteners for the new primary school and will keep going until they hit 105. They’ve hired eight teachers, two for each classroom, and one specialist who will teach physical education and dance.

The growth is expected to cost the city school district $1.4 million next year, at about $14,422 a student, said district spokesman Ron Lesko. In addition, Brighter Choice’s plan to add a fifth grade at both its boys’ and girls’ elementary schools will cost the district taxpayers another $1.4 million.

The district is affected in other ways, too.

Long-term enrollment and space planning has become difficult over the last decade as charter schools come and go in the capital city. Seven years after the district shuttered a junior high school during the height of the city’s charter school boom, enrollment is once again on the rise.

Anticipating significant growth in its middle school population, the district is now on a race to find an adequate middle school space to accommodate all the growth, which was exacerbated by the closure of two charter schools last spring.