Tuesday, January 22, 2008

KIPP Austin hopes to build on successes

I'm guessing KIPP is "banking" on schools failing over the next nine years, because where else would the number of students needed to fill those schools come from? Sad. I recommend reading an earlier post entitled: "Broad Buys Education Reform." Gives more insight to the affects of KIPP's power over schools and communities. -Patricia

By Raven L. Hill
Monday, January 21, 2008

'We're building a brand new public school district of choice,' co-founder says.

Nine new schools in nine years.

The challenge facing KIPP Austin College Prep, part of a national charter-school chain with a reputation for success with underserved students, is whether it can accomplish at 10 schools what it has done at one.

Leaders of KIPP Austin, which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program, have no doubt that it can. More than $4.5 million in grants from the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund will provide a boost.

KIPP Austin opened in 2002, one of 15 KIPP schools in the nation then. The fifth- through eighth-grade campus was originally in a Riverside Drive strip mall; its current campus is at the former Travis State School in East Austin.

KIPP is the darling of charter school supporters; they often cite it as a model for improving the education of African American and Hispanic students from families with low incomes.

The first phase of the Austin expansion plan begins next school year when the high school opens with 90 ninth-graders. By 2016, officials say, KIPP Austin will run four elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools — serving an estimated 5,000 students.

Nationwide, the 57-school KIPP network plans to grow to 100 campuses in the next decade.

"We're building a brand-new public school district of choice," said Mike Feinberg, who started KIPP with another teacher 14 years ago as a fifth-grade program in Houston. "We're going to prove you can scale the model. We will scale it, and you will learn from us."

Administrators say the KIPP model works because it requires longer school days, sets high expectations, gives principals and teachers flexibility, and mandates parental involvement. They point to student gains on state achievement tests and high college enrollment rates as proof of success.

In building a school district, KIPP Austin leaders must find a way to give principals and teachers autonomy while creating systemwide procedures and obtaining more private dollars to pay for some of KIPP's key features — higher-than-average faculty salaries, extended school days and out-of-state field trips — that tax dollars won't cover.

Some education experts say the time demand on KIPP educators could lead to higher teacher burnout. They also note that the policy of asking undermotivated students to leave KIPP would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in public schools.

Tackling the TAKS

Unlike the typical top-down management styles of most traditional school districts, KIPP campuses tend to be autonomous. School leaders design every aspect, including what the "KIPPsters" wear, the curriculum they study and the kind of tile on the floors.

But the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills looms over KIPP classrooms, as it does over traditional public school classrooms. Visits to the flagship Houston campus showed students taking TAKS practice tests. TAKS goals were tacked on a wall in one KIPP Austin classroom.

Most students go to KIPP Austin from other area schools, and test data show that students' academic performance improves during their years at the charter school. Passing rates for KIPP fifth-graders on the state achievement test were less than 50 percent last year. Rates for KIPP sixth- through eighth-graders approached 90 percent or were higher.

School leaders cite year-to-year improvement in passing rates as evidence that KIPP is doing something right.

"So many fifth-graders come to KIPP on second- and third-grade levels," spokeswoman Elizabeth Wilmer said. "There really is no magic bullet. It's great teaching and a lot of it."

KIPP Austin, with 360 students, is smaller than all but one Austin middle school; those public school campuses average 825 students.

The extended school day — a costly hurdle for public schools to reproduce — gives teachers more time to bond with students, understand their needs and tailor lessons accordingly, administrators say.

At KIPP Austin, most math teaching is "old school": traditional memorization drills in multiplication, division and basic algebraic techniques. But fifth-grade math students in teacher Constance Taylor's class learn the first 25 prime numbers to a hip-hop beat, chanting a reworked version of a song by J-Kwon:

2, here comes the 3 to the 5 to the 7

11, 13, 17 prime heaven ...

Everybody in a private club dancin'

Prime numbers in a private club dancin' ...

Taylor's "new school" teaching style has made a lesson in factoring fun.

"Why have the students sit there and try to find a number?" asked the 25-year-old Taylor, a second-year teacher. "They learned the chant so they can identify a (prime) number — 1 through 100 — in a matter of seconds."

Reaching students requires authenticity from head to toe, said Taylor, whose feet were shod in Chuck Taylor sneakers. "The first time I started wearing them to class, (the students) started wearing them. They see you are not putting up a front. You like the same things they like," she said. "I found that if I stay true to myself, then they learn to trust me."

Students say KIPP Austin's style strikes a chord with them.

"I feel like I learn more, and I get all A's now," fifth-grader Daisy Tavera said.

Good grades are not KIPP's sole goal. College is marketed to students as the ultimate prize.

Each class is tagged by the year the students will enter college. Flags from teachers' alma maters are prominently featured in classrooms. KIPP arranges student tours to East Coast and West Coast colleges that are paid for through private grants.

Acceptance to a four-year college or university will be a graduation requirement at KIPP Austin High School, scheduled to open in June.

Parent Annette Arevalo plans to enroll her seventh-grade son in the KIPP high school.

"The longer school days were an adjustment for us," she said. "But I think it prepares them for college and the future. It instills their learning and commitment habits from an early age."

A matter of time

As KIPP officials focus on "scaling up," they are keenly aware of the challenges ahead and the criticisms of the program.

Detractors say the extended school day is little more than a recipe for teacher burnout. KIPP Austin keeps students in school about 11/2 hours longer than most public schools do. Teachers are available by phone until 9 each night to answer homework questions, and they spend every other weekend doing extracurricular activities with students.

"They are literally on-call 24 hours and teaching Saturdays," said Susan Ohanian, a former teacher who has written several books about public schools and teaching methods. "It seems like a plan for very idealistic teachers who have no other life."

Like Taylor, most KIPP teachers are young, energetic and enthusiastic about their calling to remedy a host of social ills by teaching disadvantaged children.

Each KIPP Austin teacher was handpicked by Principal Steven Epstein. Though conventional wisdom holds that more-experienced teachers make better instructors, especially for struggling students, veteran educators don't like KIPP's long hours, Epstein said. Its extended-day program also includes summer classes.

"The hours are a major thing. That's one of the first things people see," Epstein said. "It's harder to recruit teachers who are a little bit older and have families."

It's also not easy to retain staff members, school officials say.KIPP Austin pays beginning teachers $43,736 on average, as much as $5,641 more than the state paid in 2006-07, according to Texas Education Agency data. But KIPP administrators say the school has lost 15 of 46 math, science, social studies and language arts teachers — nine of whom weren't asked to return — since opening in 2002.

KIPP can also ask students to leave if they don't exhibit a solid work ethic or if their parents don't get involved with the school, requirements outlined in a student and parent commitment compact.

"It is incorrect to conclude that KIPP's successes, to the extent they exist, can be duplicated in regular schools which cannot select their students," said Richard Rothstein, a research associate with the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute. Rothstein said he is not critical of KIPP itself.

KIPP officials say they ask students to leave only after other interventions have failed; 19 of the Austin school's 327 students were asked to leave in the past school year. So far this school year, 10 of 360 students have been asked to leave.

The Texas Education Agency considers Mendez Middle School a peer campus to KIPP Austin based on demographics even though KIPP Austin has fewer at-risk students — those with academic, emotional, social or disciplinary problems. About 70 percent of Mendez students are considered at-risk, compared with 22 percent of KIPP Austin students. Ninety-six percent of KIPP Austin sixth-graders passed all sections of the TAKS in 2007; 50 percent of Mendez sixth-graders did.

Some critics say KIPP accepts only the best and brightest students who have the most motivated parents.

But Feinberg, the KIPP co-founder, said such criticism is unfounded. By definition, at-risk students might be failing the majority of their classes, have poor test scores or have limited English skills.

When at-risk students enroll in KIPP, officials say, the goal is to ensure they don't stay at risk.

"The hardest group of kids for us to recruit are those that are doing well. It's much easier for us to recruit kids who are not doing well in school," Feinberg said.

Austin school district officials say they aren't concerned about the competition from KIPP. The district's enrollment projections are healthy: 103,038 students in 2015-16, an increase of about 24 percent from this school year. With public schools already competing with private schools, district officials said they are committed to giving parents and students a variety of academic options.

"In a community as diverse as Austin, students and their families must have choice when it comes to education," district spokesman Andy Welch said. "The Austin school district provides many choice options through its magnet schools, (International Baccalaureate) programs, career academies, the arts and other programs. KIPP also offers effective choice options to students, and we hope to one day find the opportunity to collaborate on a project that will serve some Austin students in a new, beneficial way."

KIPP Austin officials spent the latter part of last year building a central office, interviewing principals and teachers, checking out potential school sites and raising money.

Recruiting and fundraising will continue in the next few months as administrators prepare to open the high school.

"We're looking at the impact on the community," said Jill Kolasinski, founder and executive director of KIPP Austin. "The vision is not to take over (the Austin school district). The vision is to make sure that every child has an option for excellent education."

No comments:

Post a Comment