Monday, June 09, 2008

Charter school shatters stereotypes

Charter school shatters stereotypes
Web Posted: 06/07/2008 12:23 AM CDT

By Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

From the outside, it's just a decrepit old gymnasium sandwiched between Ashby Street and Fredericksburg Road in the shadow of the downtown skyline.

There are no windows, no signs, virtually no clues to what's taking place inside — a graduation ceremony of sorts, celebrating feats that could be described as barely short of miraculous.

On Tuesday, 70 eighth-graders gathered at the gymnasium on the campus of KIPP: Aspire Academy, a public charter school, to pledge to return in four years with high school diploma in hand and tell their principal what college they're heading to.

This class of eighth-graders, the second graduating class of the charter school that serves grades five through eight, has shattered stereotypes. Almost all the students are Hispanic and live within the boundaries of Loop 410. About 84 percent come from poor homes, and, for many, Spanish is the first language.

Yet this class has earned more than $500,000 in scholarships to private high schools, including exclusive boarding schools as far away as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Twenty students have full merit scholarships to attend prestigious private schools. Another 44 gained entrance into some of the city's most competitive magnet school programs.
EN Video
• KIPP: Aspire Academy school director Mark Larson and several students explain what makes them and their school unique.

Their scores on the state's Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test this year were among the highest in the city, beating out Alamo Heights Junior School and scoring on par with two of the richest middle schools in San Antonio — Tejeda and Bush in the North East Independent School District.

So how is this school, housed in a modest collection of buildings leased from the Archdiocese of San Antonio, managing to sail over hurdles that trip most urban school districts?

It's not rocket science, school director Mark Larson said. It's a mixture of discipline, commitment from teachers, 10-hour school days, Saturday school and three weeks of mandatory summer school.

(Bahram Mark Sobhani/Express-News)

Mark Larson is lifted by his students.

Family members watch their children during the eighth-grade recommitment ceremony.

“For every hour that kids in public school are in class, we do an hour and a half,” Larson said. “That means these kids have done six years' worth of work in the past four years.”

The model is working so well, Larson is spearheading a plan to expand KIPP in San Antonio. Plans call for opening a high school in 2009 and eventually operating 10 schools — four elementary, four middle and two high schools — by 2017, all serving inner-city kids. Houston is home to seven KIPP schools, the most in any one city.

The KIPP model is yielding results across the country. There are 66 Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools nationwide and all are showing consistent test score gains. On average, since 2001, students who were with KIPP for four years jumped from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math and from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading on national tests. The success has made KIPP, which works mainly with disadvantaged children, a shining example in the charter school movement.

A new life

KIPP Aspire sends its students on class trips every year, expanding their horizons and visiting colleges. Fifth-graders usually stay in Texas, but the older students go to places such as California, Boston and Washington.

Jennifer Martinez never had been on an airplane before coming to KIPP and barely ventured beyond her native San Antonio. But now she's visited not just Texas schools, but also the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, Boston College, Harvard, Georgetown, William & Mary and several more.

“All the trips were firsts for me,” said Jennifer, 15, who scored a high school scholarship to TMI-The Episcopal School of Texas. “We know more about colleges now than most people do when they get out of high school.”

George Gonzalez, who has two children at KIPP, said the class trips make college goals tangible for the students. Gonzalez went as a chaperone on this year's trip for eighth-graders to Washington.

“It just built the dream so much more,” he said. “It opened their eyes and now they see this as attainable.”

College prep is not just a slogan at KIPP — it's the specific goal and the theme is punctuated in everything students do. On Fridays, students who have earned the right can wear college T-shirts — shirts they've purchased at the school store with points they've earned for completing their work and behaving.

Students walk the halls with shirts from schools such as Stanford and Yale, as well as Texas A&M and the University of Texas.

Edith De La Rosa, 14, is working toward a goal that was unimaginable to her before coming to KIPP. Late this summer, Edith will leave for the Lawrenceville School, a boarding school in New Jersey. Her merit scholarship includes money for books, athletic equipment and a personal allowance, as well as a travel stipend so she can visit her family on school breaks.

Edith also was accepted at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Her admission letter from Deerfield reads in part: “You are someone who has so much to offer a school, and I hope Deerfield will be the place where you continue to grow as a person and as a student.”

The preparation has been dizzying for Edith, not the least of which is preparing herself for the inevitable homesickness.

“My mom and I are really close. Some nights I would go to her room and we'd start crying, but we're better now,” Edith said, adding that the travel stipend calmed her fears. “The longest we'll go without seeing our parent is six weeks.”

After high school, Edith wants to go to UC-Berkeley or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to focus on math and engineering. And the plucky girl from San Antonio isn't intimidated by the level of work at the elite boarding school she's headed to.

“I think it will be pretty easy after four years of KIPP,” she said.

Rigorous schedule

It may sound like a flippant remark from a teenager, but Edith just might be right. The KIPP schedule is grueling by any standard. School starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. With two to three hours extra on the bus every day, that means a 12-hour day for most students.

“I hated it at first, but eventually you get used to it,” eighth-grader Nick Hooper said of the long days. “I have between an hour and an hour-and-a-half bus ride each way. You definitely sacrifice, but it's mostly gains, no losses.”

For Nick, the gain is a scholarship to Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, where he'll start in the fall. And, Nick pointed out, the day isn't strictly academics. Students have the chance to participate in band, athletics and drama. Nick starred last month in the school's production of Shakespeare's “Twelfth Night.”

Larson, the school's director, said watching the play was a touchstone moment for him.

“Listening to these kids, some of whom struggled with English four years ago, deliver these lines from Shakespeare perfectly, I just lost it,” said Larson, his eyes glistening with tears.

Advocates say KIPP's results are proof that there is a solution for struggling urban schools, but the difference in the experience in a KIPP school compared with a traditional public school is radical.

Students start school three weeks before traditional public schools for what Larson calls “culture setting.” The goal: no time wasted getting ready to learn. By the time most schools open their doors for the first day of class, KIPP students are well into their curriculum for the year.

Those first few days, the students aren't allowed to enter the classrooms or wear their school T-shirts, and they don't even have desks. Orientation into the KIPP school day takes place in the hallways. Kids have to “earn” the right to go to class and, when they do, they get a virtual paycheck, or points, for completing their work. They pay rent for their desks from their paychecks and also can purchase school T-shirts and college shirts from the school store.

Each grade level's T-shirt has a different slogan, such as: “We work as a team and we have the same goal,” “We always do the right thing no matter who sees,” and “We believe.”

Students can lose points on their paychecks for misbehaving or failing to complete the copious amounts of homework, called “lifework” at KIPP, that they have each night. If they lose too much money from their paychecks over the course of the school year, they aren't allowed to go on the class trips.

They can also lose the right to sit at a desk if they misbehave. It's called “on the crate” and is KIPP's version of in-school suspension, better known in school lingo as ISS.

It's called on the crate because students literally sit on a milk crate instead of at their desk, they wear a shirt denoting their disgraced status and aren't allowed to talk to other students.

“We think ISS is stupid. Kids miss out on class and come back three days later behind,” Larson said. “That's not a rehabilitation program. We want them in class, learning.”

The school doesn't just ask a lot of its students, teachers have a heavy load. They, too, have a long school day, and must work two Saturdays a month and three extra weeks in the summer. They also are required to keep their cell phones on and be available to students nearly all the time.

It's not unusual for a KIPP teacher to get a call asking for help with homework well past 9 p.m.

Another strategy to help students focus is starting the day with an advisory time every morning. It's a chance for the kids to talk in a group, with teachers listening in and offering guidance.

“You never know what's going on in their lives that could affect the school day,” said Martin Acevedo, the school's director of development.

He recalled one boy who was upset because his father was in prison. The boy thought his dad was going to be released in time to celebrate his birthday. When he didn't, he was bitterly disappointed and shared it with the group.

“It turned out there were three other kids in that class that had a dad in prison, and they were able to talk about it,” Acevedo said. “These kids can't be focused if we don't allow them to deal with these very real problems they have, and that's what they do in advisory.”

On a recent school day in a fifth-grade advisory class, a student shared with her classmates that her young cousin had committed suicide over the weekend. School counselor John Boubel took note and made plans to meet with the girl later in the day.

“Normally we can see it on the kids' faces when something's wrong,” Boubel said. “That's the difference here. We know the kids that well. We get calls in the middle of the night when families are evicted or tragedy happens. We're a family.”

Sixth-grade teacher Pam Chambers agrees that though the school is strict and standards are high, the biggest reason her students are succeeding is because they feel they're part of a family.

“Children will perform if they feel loved, if they feel respected and if they feel that this is their home,” she said.

Next goal: College

This year's eighth-graders have surpassed even their teachers' expectations. At the beginning of fifth grade, these students posted poor to mediocre test results, scoring at the 31st percentile in reading and at the 51st percentile in math on a national test. Four years later, those same students are bound for some of the best private schools and the most selective magnet schools around.

KIPP doesn't call the eighth-grade event at the end of the year a graduation.

“The graduation that matters for you all comes in eight years,” Larson told the class, referring to their graduation from college. “Too many times in San Antonio, the eighth-grade gradation is the last one — not for you.”

The students came up one by one to sign a pledge that they would return to KIPP in four years, and tell Larson what college they're headed for. They received a medal and a hug from Larson.

“You guys, they make movies about people like you,” Larson told them. “That's how big a deal this is.”

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