A growing network of academically oriented charter schools that has made its mark by serving disadvantaged middle school students is working to adapt its rigorous approach to fit its newest clientele: 4- and 5-year-olds.
As the closely watched Knowledge Is Power Program expands into the early-childhood arena, its leaders are aiming to build schools that are sensitive to the learning needs of young children, without deviating from KIPP’s mission to develop capable, college-bound students.
“We’re trying to strike a balance between having high expectations and the developmentally appropriate environment,” said Amber Young, the principal of KIPP Raices Academy, the organization’s first elementary site in Los Angeles.
That balance was evident on a recent morning at Raices, housed in a former Roman Catholic school east of the city’s downtown.
After finishing one side of her math worksheet, a girl with thick, dark hair created her own subtraction problems by drawing dots inside a circle and then putting an X over some of the dots.
“One, two, three—eyes on me,” directed kindergarten teacher Stephanie Maggard as she prepared the overhead projector for another math lesson.
In another kindergarten class—one of five here at Raices—the green-shirted, khaki-pants-wearing students practiced writing upper- and lower-case K’s in their workbooks as teacher Adriana Acero demonstrated on a whiteboard.
“They are thrilled by their progress,” Ms. Young said, but added she and her young staff are discovering that in the midst of all this academic activity, 5-year-olds also need some breaks. Sometimes a teacher just has to make time for a freeze dance, in which the children dance for a bit and “freeze” when the music stops.
“The kids were getting restless,” said Ms. Young, who paused every now and then to receive a hug from a student or to check on another’s loose tooth.
As KIPP opens more pre-K and elementary schools, those are the kinds of lessons being learned.
The fact that many of KIPP’s elementary schools include pre-K classes when they open also shows that charter schools are becoming another provider of public pre-K programs, along with Head Start agencies, child-care centers, and traditional schools.
In addition to Raices, which means “roots” in Spanish, the organization has six other schools with early grades—-three in Houston, two in New Orleans, and one in Washington. Another nine elementary schools are expected to open next fall.
And over the next couple of years, KIPP will be putting its energy into opening pre-K and kindergarten sites that can grow into elementary schools. In some communities, children will be able to begin preschool in a KIPP charter school and make the transition into a KIPP middle school in 5th grade.
“We want to make sure these kids don’t even know the achievement gap,” said Katie Braude, the director of advancement for KIPP Los Angeles.
The expansion into the early-childhood arena is also being driven by a recent three-year, $5.5 million donation from the Rainwater Foundation, a Dallas-based charity that focuses on improving parental involvement and professional development in preschools and elementary schools. The Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is also supporting the spread of KIPP schools here with $12 million.
Breaking It Up
The 15-year-old KIPP network has grown to 66 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. While each school has its unique features, they all set high expectations for students. They generally give leaders more freedom to make decisions and focus more intently on measurable results than in typical public schools.
But that model is being adapted to fit into an early-childhood environment.
For example, one of the organization’s core principles, or pillars, is longer hours in school. The typical school day at Raices, for example, begins at 7:30 a.m., with breakfast, and lasts until 4:30 p.m.
Some early-childhood-education experts question, however, whether so much structure is beneficial for young children.
“It’s like fertilizer; at what point are you giving too much?” said Ellen Frede, the co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
She added that playtime shouldn’t be just a break from academic work; it’s also a vehicle through which young children learn.
Ms. Young said that the longer day actually allows the staff the flexibility to respond to the children’s needs. Two of the classes still take an after-lunch nap, while others have built in a time for creative play.
Former 3rd grade teacher Veronica Palmer, now at Raices, said that she has had to adjust to younger learners.
“I learned how to break it up” and, in addition to offering academically oriented activities, give the children time for Play-doh or pretending to be princesses, she said.
KIPP SHINE Prep in Houston, the first elementary school in the network, represents probably the biggest departure from the traditional KIPP middle school model. The school’s youngest students—3-year-olds—attend school only in the morning or in the afternoon. Learning through art and discovery and play is also emphasized, said the school’s founder, Aaron Brenner.
“You’ve got to have results,” he said, noting that children who come from disadvantaged homes need specific teaching of sounds and letters. “But you can get the kinds of results we’re getting without being a Direct Instruction school.” Direct Instruction is a reading instruction approach that is teacher-driven and known for scripted lessons.
On average, students at SHINE—which stands for Seek, Honor, Imagine, Never Give Up, Every Day—have reading skills above grade level by the end of kindergarten, according to results on the school’s Web site.
Both Ms. Young and Mr. Brenner also talk about the home visits they made to every new family before the start of the school year.
“One of my students is a huge Johnny Cash fan,” Ms. Young said. “I wouldn’t have known that otherwise.”
KIPP’s preschool classrooms also contribute to the overall growth of early-childhood classrooms in charter schools, suggests Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation.
“The charter school and universal pre-K movement have the potential to be important partners in improving education for America’s children,” she wrote in a paper on the topic last year. “High-performing charter elementary schools are a promising source of pre-K capacity—if they’re allowed to access state funding streams that support pre-K.”
Because charter schools—which are public but largely independent operations—are financed through the same funding formula as regular K-12 schools, funding to support a pre-K program can take some creativity. State laws also differ on whether charter schools are eligible to offer state pre-K classes. (“New Twist in Charter Schools: Preschool Programs,” March 20, 2002.)
In New York, for example, charter schools have been excluded from offering state-funded pre-K classes. In the District of Columbia, however, charter schools with early-childhood programs are flourishing because they receive per-pupil funding for preschoolers.
Pre-K classrooms in charter schools are also “well established” in parts of Georgia, Colorado, and Louisiana, Ms. Mead added.
As more KIPP elementary schools open, said Steve Mancini, a KIPP spokesman, the organization may produce students who end up ahead of their peers, instead of having to “play catch-up” with other students.
“We’re really hopeful,” he said. “We think we will invert our storyline.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as KIPP’s Entry Into Pre-K World Takes Some Adjustment