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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)

In some instances, KIPP teachers whose students were performing poorly and did not work to improve have been fired in the middle of the year. Principals have also been removed, and the KIPP name has been withdrawn from some schools that did not respond to suggestions for improving lagging achievement. "We will be looking to achieve a greater level of consistency in delivering on the promises we make to the children we serve," said Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation.

KIPP principals, whose average age is 32, go through a year-long training program that emphasizes quick response to problems. Jason Botel's KIPP Ujima Village Academy's reading scores on state tests are well above those at many other Baltimore public schools, but his seventh-grade scores dropped last year on a standardized reading test many KIPP schools give to track annual progress. "We have made some significant staff changes, and [those students] are receiving much better instruction this year," Botel said.

Graduating KIPP eighth-graders are placed in private schools or high-achieving public schools so they won't lose their academic edge. J.R. Gonzalez, one of the first KIPP students in Houston, graduated from the Episcopal High School in Alexandria last year and is a freshman at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. KIPP "showed me that nothing is impossible," Gonzalez said.

Some educators grumble that the 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. KIPP days are too long and that the discipline -- such as forbidding a student who hasn't done his homework to speak with other students -- is too tough. Some have called it the "Kids In Prison Program." More commonly, KIPP's energies and intentions are praised while its results are dismissed as affecting too few students and mostly helping those with involved parents.

Looking at four KIPP schools, Columbia University Teachers College researchers Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen concluded that students starting the program in fifth grade had more motivated parents and better test scores than their community averages. KIPP officials said their data showed no significant difference in academic skills between their entering students and other nearby children.

KIPP schools continue to open in the poorest neighborhoods. Khala Johnson said she resolved to start a KIPP school in the District after she saw parents weeping when there was not enough room for their children at the original KIPP DC: KEY Academy, moved from an Anacostia church to a bright blue commercial building at 770 M St. SE. Johnson has become principal of the KIPP DC: AIM Academy, which opened over the summer and has 85 fifth-graders in a renovated church in Anacostia.

Schaeffler said she has met several times with D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and hopes he will find a way to provide space for a third KIPP school -- the WILL Academy -- to be opened by Principal Jessica Cunningham in July. KIPP recently won a $175,000 award from the D.C. government for its success, and Schaeffler said she thinks a partnership between KIPP and the city would benefit both.

"I get really frustrated when I hear organizations say, 'Well, at least we're better than the D.C. school system,' " Schaeffler said. "That is so not the attitude that I think we should have."

She said she wants to see how KIPP can "fit into public education in the District and how we can actually make an impact not only on 320 kids but an impact on the system in a positive way."

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