In Colorado’s first forced conversion of a low-performing public school to charter status, the state board of education has directed the Denver school district to hand over its lowest-performing middle school to the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP.
For Colorado, the action marks the first use of a 2001 state law that requires regular public schools to become charter schools if they are rated “unsatisfactory” for three years in a row under the state accountability system. For KIPP, a well-known national network of middle schools, the project represents a first try at transforming an existing school rather than launching start-ups.
“We are all in uncharted territory,” said Steve Mancini, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation.
Nationally, the conversion of Denver’s Cole Middle School marks one of the first times that a state has compelled a district to convert a failing school to charter status. Observers elsewhere are watching in part because the federal No Child Left Behind Act identifies conversion to charter status as one of five approaches states can take to turn around schools that repeatedly fail to make the grade.
In picking KIPP on Nov. 22 to take over Cole Middle School, the state board cited the success of an existing KIPP school in Denver, as well as the network’s overall record in boosting the test scores of minority students from low-income families. Since the first KIPP charter schools opened in the mid-1990s in Houston and New York City, the network has grown to 38 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, 33 of which are charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools that operate free of many state and district regulations in return for an agreement to meet specified achievement targets.
“The whole goal of this mandatory conversion is to improve student achievement, and I think that it speaks well of the process that that was actually the primary concern when they made their decision,” Denise Mund, who leads the Colorado education department’s schools-of-choice unit, said of the state board’s selection. Under state law, she said, the 72,000-student Denver district has 45 days to reach an agreement with KIPP on the terms of its charter.
More Conversions Foreseen
Rival proposals for the Denver charter came from two for-profit education management organizations with experience in taking over failing schools: Edison Schools Inc. and Mosaica Education, both based in New York City. A Denver parents’ group called Padres Unidos had submitted a fourth plan proposing to replicate a locally operated charter school in Pueblo, Colo., called Cesar Chavez Academy.
The state’s selection of KIPP has sparked some complaints and confusion in Denver, focused in part on how the coming transition will roll out. KIPP officials have signaled that they will not consider the school truly theirs until 2006—after the 365 students now attending the existing grades 6-8 school have moved on and a KIPP-trained principal can be brought on board.
State law is clear that the school must be converted to charter status next fall, Ms. Mund noted. But the KIPP model would give new KIPP principals a full year to be trained and to assemble a staff. It also calls for starting with 80 5th graders, and then building over four years to serve grades 5-8. KIPP does not plan to have its first 5th grade class enter until 2006, and is seeking a “partner” to help run the school in the interim.
Expecting many more involuntary conversions in the coming years, Colorado education officials will likely urge some adjustments in the law, Ms. Mund said. One concern, she said, is the “year of limbo” between when a school is identified and when it is converted to a charter school.
Mr. Mancini said KIPP is interested in opportunities elsewhere to replace chronically failing schools. But the Denver deal does not mean that KIPP now sees itself as an education management organization “in the business of taking over low-performing schools,” he said.
“People are calling up asking if we’re becoming an EMO, and we’re saying no,” he said. “We’re still in the business of starting locally run, independent public schools.”