National middle school model launches two sites in Chicago

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KIPP Ascend Academy

photo by John Booz

KIPP Ascend Academy

Long hours, daily homework and Saturday school. This regimen has attracted low income and minority families to enroll their children at KIPP, a growing chain of mostly charter schools that are proliferating from Houston to New York to Los Angeles.

This fall, KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, expands to Chicago, and some educators believe the model—which aims to get all students to college—is the answer for boosting student achievement in some of the city’s under-performing schools.

“They go into some really difficult areas where we’ve struggled and kids have struggled,” says Greg Richmond, who oversees CPS charter, contract and small schools. “We haven’t had as much success at high school as we’ve had at the elementary school level. So if we can develop some solid programs [such as KIPP ] at middle school, that will help at high school.”

Two KIPP schools opened last month—one on the West Side in Austin and another on the Near South Side in the former Williams Elementary, which was closed a year ago, then reopened this fall.

Both sites adhere to KIPP’s basic schedule and tenets. The school day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Every other Saturday, students attend a half-day of extracurricular programs, such as dance or theater, and summer school is mandatory.

The extra hours allow teachers to spend more time reinforcing reading and math skills without sacrificing other subjects, such as science and social studies, says KIPP co-founder Michael Feinberg. Every student must sign a contract pledging to complete homework, wear clothing as stipulated in a dress code and arrive on time every day. Parents and teachers must also sign contracts pledging their support for the students.

Students who break the agreement—by not turning in homework assignments, for instance—are typically separated from their classmates and placed at a table in the back of the classroom and at an isolated table during lunch. At the KIPP school in Oakland, Calif., this exclusion is known as being sent to the “bench.” To leave the bench, students must write a letter of apology to their classmates and then read it aloud.

This is tough love, KIPP style. The program was created in 1994 by two Teach For America teachers, Feinberg and David Levin, who struggled to raise test scores and achievement in 5th-grade classrooms in Houston. (See related story.)

They devised a model centered on five academic principles, or pillars, that include high expectations for students and a school day that was three to four hours longer than average. Every KIPP school follows them. “You can dress them up any way you like,” says Feinberg.

Since then, KIPP has gained national attention for turning around student achievement in tough circumstances.

Carefully selecting and training school leaders works in KIPP’s favor, says John Ayers, the director of Leadership for Quality Education and a strong advocate of charters. Ayers compares KIPP’s approach to Edison Schools, a for-profit education management firm. “KIPP has done the right thing by focusing on leaders, which Edison didn’t; they picked principals off the Internet,” he says.

But one potential trouble spot is teacher turnover. KIPP’s demanding daily schedule and extended school year may wear out some teachers, Ayers says.

The issue is on the School Board’s radar, too. “Clearly, they have this model that is very demanding on teachers,” says Richmond.

However, he’s not convinced that it will be a problem. KIPP tends to attract young, energetic teachers, and having enthusiastic teachers cycling in and out of a school may not be a bad thing. It may even be desirable, Richmond adds.

Young and energetic are characteristics observers would ascribe to the two leaders of Chicago’s new KIPP schools.

KIPP Ascend Academy

If Jim O’Connor, principal of KIPP Ascend Academy Charter School, had created a school on his own, he says it would have been similar to KIPP. “I grew up on a farm, so I like hard work,” says O’Connor, who’s 30.

KIPP Ascend is housed in three classrooms at McNair Elementary, 4820 W. Walton St., in Austin.

Ninety 5th-grade students are enrolled this year; the goal is to expand one grade level each year up to 8th grade, with no more than 400 students.

After a year of training, O’Connor, who grew up in Wilmington, Ill., a town roughly an hour south of Chicago, was looking to open a school here, close to his hometown. When state legislators passed a law in April to expand the number of charter schools in Chicago, O’Connor jumped on the opportunity to open one on the far West Side.

KIPP seeks to open schools in urban communities where families are low-income and minority and students are struggling to learn. “Austin fit that profile,” O’Connor says.

O’Connor recruited most of his students from a handful of public elementary schools in Austin—May, DePriest, Key, Hay and Spencer—where more than 90 percent of students are poor and close to 100 percent are African American. Last year, none of the schools bested citywide reading scores of 39 percent of students at or above national averages.

“The parents needed another option,” he notes. “We handed out flyers to kids coming home from school. We went door to door, into laundromats, hair salons, barbershops, and churches.”

Denise Cobb is one of those parents. Last year, her son, Emmanuel, attended May, which has been on probation for low test scores since 2000. Cobb tried to get him transferred into a CPS magnet school, but he wasn’t selected in the enrollment lotteries.

“I was looking for a school … period.” One day last spring, Emmanuel gave his mom a brochure on KIPP that he picked up on his way home from school. The school sounded “too good to be true,” Cobb recalls.

Cobb already sees results. Emmanuel’s reading skills, which were below grade level, improved after several weeks in summer school at KIPP. “His pace is speeding up,” she notes.

O’Connor hired five teachers—two of them from CPS. But he hit a couple snags in finding a home for the school, a common problem for charters. Space in a West Side parochial school fell through in June, and summer school was held in temporary quarters at Noble Street Charter in West Town. In September, the school moved to McNair, a facility it will outgrow next year when enrollment doubles.

Frequent moves are typical for KIPP charter schools, says spokesman Steve Mancini. “The original KIPP school in Houston is in its sixth location,” he says.

O’Connor is looking to relocate the school to South Austin next year, and has hired a fundraiser to raise money to pay for the move. “Most KIPP [charter] schools wait a little, but it’s important to start now,” he says.

True to the KIPP mission, O’Connor’s ultimate goal for KIPP Ascend is to set students firmly on the path to college. “If you have high standards for the teachers, kids and parents, you can really change the trajectory of those kids’ lives,” he says.

KIPP Chicago Youth Village Academy

In another part of town, KIPP Chicago Youth Village Academy opened as a contract school. Unlike charters, which are publicly funded schools that operate free of many state and federal mandates, contract schools are governed by the same laws and policies as regular public schools. The arrangement is somewhat unusual for KIPP, which until it opened a contract school last year in Oakland, Calif., only ran charters.

“We are a regular CPS school, but our training and model have been through KIPP,” explains Principal Sarah Abella, a former CPS teacher and Hyde Park native.

The school is one of three housed in the former Williams Elementary at 2710 S. Dearborn St., which was closed and reopened under the Renaissance Initiative, a School Board effort to restructure schools that are deemed to be failing. A primary grade school is contracted to the Erickson Institute, a contract high school will be run by Rhode Island-based Big Picture Company.

This fall, KIPP enrolled some 87 4th- and 5th-graders, most of them former Williams students who live in Dearborn Homes, a nearby public housing project. Eventually, it will grow to admit 350 students in 4th through 8th grades.

“I’ve seen a lot of good stuff on paper,” says Sheila Garrett, a community activist who has talked with families whose children are enrolled in KIPP. “I want to see it happen in the classroom.”

Having a stable base of operations is one benefit of being a contract school, says Abella, who expects to remain in the current facility for some time. A steady source of support from the school district is another, she adds. Among her faculty are two CPS teachers and a recruit from Boston.

Officials at KIPP will monitor how the model fares under a contract agreement.

Charters are preferable because it allows greater autonomy, says KIPP’s Feinberg.

Meanwhile, Abella says she is looking forward to working with a group of kids who live so close to each other. “We have the opportunity to impact a targeted community,” Abella says. “Our biggest fear is that Dearborn Homes will be gone.”

Brett Schaeffer is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.