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Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 06/13/2011

A response from KIPP

Last week I ran a post by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of “All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice,” about the KIPP charter schools. He criticized KIPP, arguing that KIPP “skims motivated students and yet is pointed to as a segregation success story.” Here Ryan Hill, executive director of four KIPP charter schools in Newark, N.Y., responds.

By Ryan Hill

As executive director of TEAM Charter Schools – the four KIPP charter schools in Newark, New Jersey – I read Richard Kahlenberg’s recent blog post with great interest. Our schools serve about 1,300 Newark public schoolchildren and over 100 alumni, and are consistently among the highest-performing schools in Newark – ninety percent of our students who completed 8th grade have matriculated to college. Yet we know that we have much to learn and are far from having it all “figured out,” so we welcome constructive feedback.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kahlenberg’s observations on KIPP fall short in providing us with useful information..... I thus write to provide the perspective of an educator and Teach For America alumnus with over a decade of experience teaching, coaching, and leading schools in Harlem, Washington Heights, and, for the last 10 years, Newark.

Despite Mr. Kahlenberg’s assertion, it is simply not true that KIPP students have an advantage because “by definition, KIPP students are from self-selected families who chose to enter a lottery; and KIPP has very high attrition rates.” I have met not one child – in a district or a charter school – whose parents were so disinterested or recalcitrant that they would not exert the minimal amount of effort required to enroll their child in a public school like ours.

To enter a student into our blind lottery, a parent can contact our schools however he or she chooses – by phone, email, walk-in, or on our website. Upon winning the lottery, families are notified, and for those who are unresponsive, we seek them out – even going to their homes at times – to make sure that even those students with the least-responsive parents can attend.

In addition to having no barriers to entry, we go out of our way to seek out students in the neighborhoods where there is the greatest need. With over 5,000 kids (well over 10 percent of the students in Newark) on our waitlists, we do not need to spend time and resources recruiting – yet we do so in order to ensure that the families in our neighborhoods have the greatest possible chance of knowing that KIPP schools are an option.

Perhaps this is why our student body – which is pulled heavily from the neighborhoods with the lowest-performing schools in our city – so closely mirrors the demographics of the students served by the schools in our neighborhood. Among our students, 96 percent are African American and 84 percent qualify for free and reduced price meals. All three of these percentages are equal to or higher than the averages for schools in our neighborhoods.

Most telling, however, is the fact that our students who join us in fifth grade enter on average achieving two years below grade level. Last year, 23 percent — almost a quarter — of our incoming fifth graders entered our school reading on a kindergarten or first-grade level. Clearly, we are not “creaming” the highest-performing students.

Neither are we losing students at a high rate. Mr. Kahlenberg claims we have high attrition, yet last year TEAM’s mobility was under 3 percent, while the district showed a 20 percent mobility rate.

The 2010 Mathematica study of KIPP middle schools demonstrates that KIPP results nationwide cannot be explained by attracting the highest-achieving students or having higher relative attrition. Mathematica found that KIPP schools attract students whose entering test scores are lower than the district average and comparable to neighborhood public schools, and student attrition that is no different in aggregate than the average from neighborhood public schools.

Mathematica also points to areas that we can improve; it found that KIPP schools enroll, on average, fewer special-needs students than their host districts. As with any problem we identify, KIPP is working hard to improve in this area.

In Newark, as in many KIPP regions, our special-needs population has grown in recent years. It currently stands at 14 percent, which is higher than most of the schools in our neighborhoods. It is only through the use of accurate data that we could identify this under-enrollment as a concern, and armed with that knowledge, improve our practices.

Mr. Kahlenberg is absolutely right that the challenges of poverty provide many obstacles that our students have to navigate on their paths to and through college. And he is also correct in pointing out that 33 percent of KIPP students who completed 8th grade ten years ago have earned a four-year college degree. What Mr. Kahlenberg failed to mention, however, is that the KIPP four-year college-completion rate is higher than the average for all students (31 percent), and is four times the rate for low-income students (8 percent).

Our national goal is that 75 percent of our alumni end up completing college – a number that would put our students at a similar level to students in the highest quartile of wealth in America. To reach this goal, we are providing ever more support for our alumni who are in college, and we are also starting younger; in many KIPP cities we now start with three-year-olds.

We already see these efforts paying off in Newark. This year, in our first elementary school in Newark, SPARK Academy, the vast majority of our first graders were on a second-grade reading level or higher by the middle of this year – exceeding what is expected even of the wealthiest students in America.

It will be a long time before our smallest KIPPsters complete college, but when they do, it will not be the result of having especially highly motivated parents, high entering test scores, or any other unusual advantages over their peers in district schools. No, their college graduation will be a credit simply to their hard work, and to their caring teachers’ ceaseless drive to find better and better ways to serve all of our children.

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