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KIPP Schools Shift Strategy for Scaling Up

April 11, 2006 7 min read
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The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a widely touted network of mostly charter schools that targets low-income communities, is adjusting both its growth and leadership-training strategies as it ramps up its work around the country.

As part of those changes, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization this week was expected to announce plans to move its leadership program to Stanford University from the University of California, Berkeley, where it’s been housed for six years.

Rinada McBean, an 8th grader at a Knowledge is Power Program school in Washington, works on her Spanish.

KIPP officials say they hope to benefit from the expertise of Stanford’s faculty, and expect to see participation in their Leaders in Training program climb substantially this year, with a growing number of educators outside the network signing up for its intensive summer institute.

The network is also in the early stages of a new approach to its expansion work, forming “clusters” of schools—or what one KIPP official dubbed “city-states”—in urban areas.

“You’re going to see geographic concentration be the center of our growth strategy,” said Richard Barth, KIPP’s chief executive officer.

The goal over the next five years, he said, is to double the number of KIPP schools, now at 46, and to triple the roughly 9,000 students currently served. Though KIPP mostly has middle schools at present, the plan is eventually to offer a KIPP education pre-K-12 for students.

In Newark, N.J., for instance, a second KIPP middle school is scheduled to open next school year, and a high school the following year. More KIPP schools are also set to open in the District of Columbia.

KIPP officials said clustering would both make it easier for schools to focus on their core academic mission—as the clusters will have a shared central office—and help the organization offer lessons to the broader education community.

But, as many education observers stress, KIPP’s effort to expand its reach is a tricky path.

“KIPP has a great model,” said Craig D. Jerald, a Washington-based education consultant. “But what we’ve found with expanding models is that a lot depends on fidelity of implementation, and you know, it’s very hard to ensure quality as you let more and more people open schools with your name on them.”

‘Smarter Growth’

KIPP has grown rapidly since two teachers launched the program in 1994 for 5th graders at a public school in Houston.

The model is based on five pillars: high expectations for behavior and academic performance, with a college-prep emphasis; choice by families and faculty to join; extended school time, including longer days and Saturday classes; substantial autonomy for principals in school operations, instruction, and hiring; and a focus on strong results on standardized tests and other measures.

The network has attracted nationwide attention for producing what many analysts call impressive academic gains for the schools’ predominantly low-income and minority students. A study issued last August by the Virginia Beach, Va.-based Educational Policy Institute found that 5th graders at KIPP schools showed “substantially greater” progress on a nationally normed test than what is considered normal for their grade.

In 2000, Doris and Donald Fisher, the co-founders of Gap Inc., worked with the founders to launch the KIPP Foundation to help replicate the model. Many more schools have opened since then in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The Fishers have provided more than $40 million to support KIPP; most of that pays for the principal training program.

The KIPP Foundation licenses its name to independently run schools, or clusters of schools. It recruits, trains, and supports principals as they open and run schools. The foundation may revoke the KIPP name if it is dissatisfied with a school’s quality and fidelity to the model.

Although KIPP officials emphasized that they remain committed to supporting all existing KIPP schools, the foundation is now starting to focus its school growth on the cluster model. KIPP officials named several communities where they are looking to grow clusters of schools, from Philadelphia and Denver to San Antonio and Chicago. The first cluster, now with four schools, is in New York City.

“It’s much easier, and a smarter growth strategy,” Mr. Barth said.

The first priority beyond middle school is opening more high schools, Mr. Barth said, noting that the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has underwritten the effort to expand the model to that level. So far, two KIPP high schools have opened, in New York City and Gaston, N.C., with at least 10 more to come.

In Washington, Susan Schaeffler, who founded the city’s first KIPP school, last June became the executive director of the network of schools there, where she is leading the expansion effort. Washington has two KIPP middle schools, with a third to open this summer; an elementary is slated to open in 2007, and a high school in 2009, Ms. Schaeffler said.

The schools will retain control over their budgets, curriculum, and instructional matters, she said. “My job is to make sure there is quality from campus to campus,” Ms. Schaeffler said.

How Sustainable?

Critics contend that KIPP schools cream off strong students. But KIPP officials have countered that the students in its open-enrollment schools are mostly low-income and members of minority groups, and that the achievement level and socioeconomic status of entering KIPP students is comparable to their peers’ in neighborhood schools.

Wren Gadwa cheers along with her 5th graders after a student finishes reading his poem during the class's "Poetry Celebration" at KIPP DC:KEY Academy, one of two KIPP middle schools in Washington.

The critics also question how sustainable the model is, given the extreme time demands on faculty and staff.

In any case, a range of analysts say it’s still too soon to say for sure whether the early academic track record for KIPP is sustainable over time, especially as it continually expands. And most schools are relatively new. (Read the related story, “New KIPP Schools Seen as Faithful to Model, Despite Variations,” this issue.)

Meanwhile, starting this summer, the KIPP leadership training program will be housed at the Stanford Education Leadership Institute, which draws from the university’s business and education schools. This move “really represents an opportunity to take our game to the next level,” Mr. Barth said.

KIPP officials say they anticipate the program will have more access to the university’s faculty than at Berkeley, where it operated as a separate entity with little university involvement.

“We were kind of going it alone,” said Steven Mancini, a KIPP spokesman. “We are looking forward to the opportunity to partner with the best and brightest at Stanford to make the program stronger.”

The yearlong KIPP leadership program for “Fisher fellows” is designed for educators planning to open new KIPP schools. It includes a six-week summer institute with intensive coursework in instructional, operational, and organizational leadership, as well as follow-up meetings afterward. It also involves residencies at high-performing KIPP schools and support during the opening of the new schools.

KIPP also offers the Leaders in Training program, which includes the summer session and a few follow-up meetings.

“We’re really hoping to work with KIPP to create more customized, continuous learning opportunities,” said Lisa M. Daggs, the new director of program development for the Stanford institute and a former chief of staff for KIPP.

Mr. Mancini said KIPP is looking to bring in more students, especially for its Leaders in Training program. That program enrolled 32 students (including seven Fisher fellows) last year, and this June will have from 45 to 52 students, he said. In addition, the network is increasing the number of non-KIPP educators.

Among those KIPP has already been training are school leaders for Achievement First, a New Haven, Conn.-based charter network that has sent four educators to the summer program and plans to send three more this year.

“We sent them off as great teachers, and they came back great teachers with a leadership mind-set,” said Achievement First President Dacia M. Toll.

Last week, the Indianapolis school district announced that it was inviting a local KIPP school to share building space next fall with two small middle school academies. The schools’ leaders will attend KIPP’s summer training institute, and teachers at the KIPP school will serve as mentors for the academies’ faculty.

“I had looked at the success of the KIPP programs around the country,” said Eugene G. White, the superintendent of the 38,000-student district, “and decided we needed to do something in line with what KIPP had been doing.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as KIPP Schools Shift Strategy For Scaling Up

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