KIPP Explore uses pre-K to put students on a successful learning track

ByJennifer Radcliffe

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It’s not easy to convince East End families to send their 3-year-olds to preschool.

Many moms aren’t ready for their little ones to be away from home. For working parents, the half-day schedule is tough to swing. So every year, administrators from KIPP Explore canvass the neighborhood making their pitch to parents: The charter school’s high-quality, pre-kindergarten program helps erase academic gaps that typically plague low-income, English-language learners. Its curriculum puts the student body, which is 96.5 percent Hispanic, on pace for college, they say.

Many traditional schools don’t come close to making those kinds of gains with similar populations, landing KIPP Explore the No. 1 spot for Hispanic student performance among Houston-area elementary schools. It ranks No. 69 overall among Houston elementary schools, and is among the 113 area schools in that category to receive an A-plus grade this year from Children at Risk, an advocacy organization with offices in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth focused on improving children’s lives through education, public policy and research.

About 88 percent of KIPP third-graders passed the reading portion of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) test last year, well above state and local averages for a campus where nearly half of all students are still learning English.

“Everything we wanted in a school and more has come alive,” said school leader Frank Cush, who has led the campus since it opened in June 2009.

In addition to traditional KIPP charter system values like a college-bound mindset, on-campus health care and heavy parental involvement, school leaders credit their top scores to classroom technology, data-driven assessments and a preschool program for both 3- and 4-year-olds. The campus also features a 270-student athletic program, where even the youngest players get a taste of important skills like teamwork and coping with failure on the vast baseball fields outside the school.

KIPP Explore starts working with 3-year-olds in a half-day preschool program, where the emphasis is on oral language skills. By age 4, children attend classes for the full day. While the teachers are bilingual, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on English. Unlike some traditional Houston ISD campuses, all of KIPP Explore’s third graders are taking the STAAR test in English.

“It’s so much better for the kids,” Cush said.

The importance of early education is apparent, experts say.

“The data backs them up,” said Bob Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk. “We are seeing a lot of the high-performing, high-poverty schools whose success can be measured by having had most of the kids go through pre-K.”

KIPP Explore uses national norm-referenced tests to make sure students progress on a high trajectory, but they don’t overemphasize test preparation in classroom teaching.

The difference in school culture is evident from day one, said Michele Rodriguez, a second-grade teacher who spent 17 years in the Houston ISD before switching to KIPP. At her Houston ISD campus, only a handful of parents would attend meet-the-teacher night. At KIPP, parents of all 26 students typically attend.

Both the school and the parents seem more invested in student success, said Rodriguez, 44, a graduate of HISD’s Milby High School.

And most students who start at KIPP Explore as preschoolers stay through fourth grade, before moving on to middle school.

“Once they start to see the benefits, we have them for the long haul,” Cush said.

Students say they are encouraged at KIPP Explore.

“They teach us good things. They tell us to never stop,” said 9-year-old Laura Garcia, a third- grader.

Alexa Gonzalez, also 9, said she learned English early at KIPP Explore. She hopes to one day be a teacher herself.

“They always tell us to do our best,” she said.