High Scores Fail to Clear Obstacles to KIPP Growth

Barr prepares to dismiss her class at AIM Academy. The school will instruct students through eighth grade.
Barr prepares to dismiss her class at AIM Academy. The school will instruct students through eighth grade. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Susan Schaeffler turned a small program in an Anacostia church basement into the District's highest-achieving public middle school, but she is having trouble opening more schools with the same successful formula.

It is a crucial moment for one of the most closely watched educational models, the Knowledge Is Power Program, a way of teaching fifth- through eighth-graders that has produced some of the best math and reading scores in low-income neighborhoods across the country. Despite its impressive record, administrators and policymakers are responding slowly to KIPP's desire for more space and support.

Students on average are at the 28th percentile in reading and math on national standardized tests when they enter KIPP. The first five KIPP schools in the country, including Schaeffler's KIPP DC: KEY Academy, show students rising to the 74th percentile by the end of eighth grade, according to figures supplied by the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation.

Schaeffler's first class of D.C. students, all black and 84 percent from low-income households, had average math scores that went from the 34th percentile when the students entered fifth grade in 2001 to the 92nd percentile when they completed eighth grade last year, and were the highest in the city last year at the school, now run by Schaeffler's successor, Sarah Hayes.

And yet two of Schaeffler's teachers who have tried to start new KIPP public charter schools in the District have run into problems. One could not find a building until two months before her school was scheduled to open, and the other is looking for space six months before its July start date. Even Schaeffler, executive director of KIPP schools in the District, isn't certain where she might house two elementary schools and a high school using some KIPP practices.

Given the shortage of space for all independently run charter schools in the city, Schaeffler is seeking a radical approach, sharing space with regular D.C. schools. School officials in the city have been encouraging, but there have been no results yet.

It will be some time, experts say, before anyone can be sure that KIPP is as good as it seems. The original schools in Houston and New York City are doing well after more than 10 years, and KIPP founders Mike Feinberg, 37, and Dave Levin, 35, are supervising new schools in those cities with impressive initial results. But other highly praised education programs have lost steam over time, and some KIPP critics wonder whether the 320-student middle schools can influence the general low performance of big-city systems.

Craig Jerald, a D.C.-based school achievement consultant who has watched KIPP's growth, said much of the response to the program has been tepid at best. He said Feinberg once told him that "opening a KIPP school in every big city would embarrass or inspire urban districts to do better for their kids.

"I think we all underestimated how dismissive these systems can be."

Feinberg and Levin created KIPP in 1994 when they were struggling elementary school teachers in Houston and, they admit, making it up as they went along. They had no foundation support, no well-known advisers and only two years of teaching experience each, and they were often at odds with their principals.

They did, however, have a mentor, Harriett Ball, a teacher who had grown up in inner-city Houston and whose classes were high-achieving and well-behaved. From that example and their own discoveries of what worked, they fashioned a system of nine-hour school days with extra pay for teachers, an emphasis on character, behavior and students' future in college, and Saturday classes. The program included teacher visits to student homes, mandatory summer school, a requirement for students to call teachers at night if they had homework questions and an elaborate system of student sanctions and rewards, including a year-end trip to some other part of the country. All of this helped produce the highest test scores among middle schools in the Houston and South Bronx areas.

More than 80 percent of the students in the 47 KIPP schools in 15 states and the District are from low-income families, and 95 percent are black or Hispanic. Almost all schools show significant gains in test scores, but there are some exceptions, such as drops last year in reading score percentiles for sixth-graders at schools in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago.

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