Getting past rumors to see KIPP DC in motion

Columnist

Look for references to KIPP charter schools on the Internet, and you will find critics saying they are akin to military schools or concentration camps. That is far from the truth. The schools have rules but are full of games, songs, choices and critical thinking. Some of those most hostile to KIPP have never been inside a KIPP school, but that doesn’t stop them.

So it goes for the nation’s largest and best-known charter network, which receives glowing research results and inspires dark rumors on the Web.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The teachers who keep KIPP standards high are amused to hear they are slaves to an evil model since many joined KIPP for its creative team spirit. They are happily improving on the methods developed by KIPP co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.

A good example is KIPP’s network of 12 schools in the District. The executive director and founder of KIPP DC is Susan Schaeffler, 43, a former D.C. elementary school teacher. From the start, she had the gumption to defy Levin and Feinberg. They wanted her to start a school in Atlanta. She told them her KIPP school would be in the District, near her family and friends, or nowhere.

Thirteen years later, 87 percent of her 3,640 students are from low-income families and yet on average score 20 or 30 percentage points higher on annual tests than students at regular D.C. schools with similar demographics. But the KIPP team still makes changes, such as the reduction of KIPP’s long school day. At Schaeffler’s first school, students arrived at 7:30 a.m. and did not leave until 5 p.m. A KIPP student’s day is now an hour and 15 minutes shorter.

In part, this is because KIPP’s middle schools no longer need so much extra time to pull new fifth- graders up to grade level. Most KIPP DC middle school students come from KIPP elementary schools, and they are much better prepared.

KIPP DC also has changed the way it recruits and trains new teachers. In the early years, I watched Schaeffler hire the best people she could find and provide them with much support, but she refused to give them the usual multiyear probationary period. If they weren’t up to KIPP standards by Thanksgiving, they were replaced. Students deserved better, she said, than a weak probationer holding onto a job.

The KIPP team has found a better way, called Capital Teaching Residents. They are bright students fresh out of college, like the people in other alternative teacher training programs. Unlike other programs, KIPP DC does not put its residents in charge of classes after a few weeks of summer training. Instead, each resident becomes an assistant to a seasoned KIPP teacher. The trainees gradually get more responsibility so that by the end of the year they can teach classes on their own.

“I could literally stop into any classroom to observe excellent teaching,” said former CTR Keith Dykstra, who now teaches math at a KIPP DC middle school. Bianca Brown, a CTR at a KIPP elementary school, said that “the relationship I have with my mentor teacher is a partnership. We are together 10-plus hours a day.”

After the residency, new teachers commit to two years in a D.C. school. KIPP takes as many as possible. Of the 100 new teachers KIPP DC hired last year, 43 were former Capital Teaching Residents.

A trouble spot for Schaeffler and her teachers is their one high school, KIPP D.C. College Preparatory.

The school’s test scores are more than 40 percentage points above D.C. high schools. Just four D.C. schools have higher passing rates on Advanced Placement tests than KCP. But it is not where the KIPP team wants it to be.

“It is hard. It is very humbling,” Schaeffler said. The fifth-graders she used to teach had seven years to get ready for college. But if an 11th-grader at KCP “fails chemistry,” she said, “there is no time in her life to make up chemistry” before college begins.

Fixing that will take time and effort. KIPP welcomes visitors. Interested critics should stop by and see how it works.

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