Education Funding

KIPP Looks to Recreate School Success Stories

By Caroline Hendrie — October 30, 2002 5 min read
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After getting his start by selling bluejeans from a single store in San Francisco, Donald G. Fisher went on to build a clothing empire with 4,200 stores around the world. Now, the founder of the Gap Inc. is helping a handful of enterprising young educators pursue a similarly ambitious dream.

Two years after putting up $15 million to establish the KIPP Foundation, Mr. Fisher announced last week that he and his wife, Doris, were donating another $8 million to help the national nonprofit organization open about 20 new schools a year across the country. Showcased in such venues as the 2000 Republican National Convention and on the CBS program “60 Minutes” in 1999, the two original KIPP schools have garnered attention by coaxing consistently high test scores from disadvantaged middle-schoolers in high-poverty communities.

“I see [KIPP] as a national brand,” Mr. Fisher said in announcing the gift during an Oct. 21 visit to a KIPP school here in Washington. “We want to run this like a business so we can replicate this throughout the United States.”

What Mr. Fisher and the founders of KIPP want to reproduce is the much- publicized success of the first two KIPP, or Knowledge Is Power Program, schools—one in Houston and the other in New York City. Featuring a significantly extended school calendar that aims to put all students on the path to college, the schools were founded in 1995 by a pair of young Teach For America recruits. They hatched the idea while team-teaching a 5th grade class in Houston the year before.

Michael Feinberg, the founder of the KIPP Academy in Houston, and David Levin, who started the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, have seen their “family of schools” grow to include 15 middle schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Next summer, they hope to add 19 more in metropolitan areas around the country, including as many as eight more in California.

Ten of the existing schools are charter schools, and five operate under contracts with their school districts that grant them more autonomy than that of regular public schools.

“Our goal is to KIPP-notize the country,” Mr. Feinberg declared last week in a telephone interview from the KIPP Foundation’s San Francisco headquarters.

‘Cautiously Enthusiastic’

The big question, of course, is whether KIPP’s offspring will be able to reproduce the successes of its first generation.

Aware that many education scholars are skeptical of such replication, KIPP leaders last week released the results of a study offering preliminary evidence that the model is traveling well. The KIPP-commissioned study was conducted by the research arm of New American Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Va., that promotes school improvement models.

The analysis examined the first-year test-score gains of students in the initial three spinoff schools, which opened at the start of the 2001-02 academic year. Each school started with 70 to 80 students, all of them 5th graders, and the intention of adding one grade per year.

All three schools, the researchers conclude, posted gains that outpaced those of their respective school districts on various standardized tests. In addition to the Knowledge Empowers You Academy in the nation’s capital, the study looked at Gaston College Preparatory School in rural Gaston, N.C., and the 3D Academy in Houston.

“The findings in this report suggest that the three new KIPP schools have been able to successfully repeat the academic success of the two original KIPP schools as measured by academic test scores,” says the report, written by Harold C. Doran, the director of research and evaluation for New American Schools.

Sharon Lewis, the research director for the Council of the Great City Schools, said she was “cautiously enthusiastic” about the study. The council, based in Washington, represents about 60 large urban school systems.

“I would be enthusiastic because the test-score gain has been significant,” she said. “I would be cautious because it’s only three schools, and it’s only one grade.”

Planting New Schools

Among those leading what they describe as the KIPP “movement,” the enthusiasm is anything but cautious. That mood is shared by Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who supported the original Houston academy as schools chief in that city and who hailed Mr. Levin and Mr. Feinberg as “two wonderful American heroes” during last week’s event at KIPP’s KEY Academy.

Addressing the school’s 160 5th and 6th graders, Mr. Levin told a parable about aspen trees to convey his view of how to cure what he sees as the ailments of America’s public schools. Drawing an analogy between public education and aspen trees, the 32-year-old educator said that when one aspen tree gets sick, the health of the whole grove is threatened because all the trees are connected at the roots.

“The scientists found out that the way to heal the [grove of] trees is to plant a new tree next to it,” he said. “That is what Secretary Paige and Mr. Fisher have asked us to do.”

The KIPP schools are not expected to be clones of the originals, as long as they adhere to the organization’s “five pillars.”

Those principles require that schools set academic expectations that “make no excuses based on the background of students"; ensure that students and parents choose to attend the schools and buy in to their demanding work ethic; offer an extended school day, week, and year; assume full responsibility over their budgets and staffing; and “focus relentlessly on high student performance on standardized tests and other objective measures.”

‘Picking the Right People’

Schools in the KIPP network benefit from the outside support that the national organization has attracted. In addition to the money from the Fishers, which is earmarked mainly for training principals to lead new schools, the organization has raised money from such sources as the Bentonville, Ark.-based Walton Family Foundation; the Plano, Texas-based Challenge Foundation; and the Department of Education, which awarded the group a $3.5 million, two-year grant last year.

Mr. Fisher and Mr. Levin put great stock in the program that KIPP has set up to train new principals. Known as “Fisher Fellows,” the prospective school leaders attend an intensive, one-month summer course at the business school of the University of California, Berkeley, followed by four months of interning on KIPP campuses and other high-performing schools.

The new principals then spend seven months getting their new schools off the ground. Mr. Fisher said that the program attracted 450 applicants for 20 slots this year.

“A huge issue is picking the right people to begin with,” Mr. Levin said.


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