Politics and KIPP

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 17, 2006; 10:42 AM

Tracy McDaniel is a very talented educator who grew up in northeast Oklahoma City and knows that survival sometimes means a fight. He started a new middle school in his old neighborhood. His mostly low-income African American students were doing better than anyone expected. But city school administrators told him that despite his rising test scores, school budget cuts meant he could not recruit more students. His dream of helping more kids like himself was dead.

The name of the school founded by McDaniel, a former Oklahoma vice principal of the year, was KIPP Reach College Prep. KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, a group of independently run public schools that have shown impressive achievement gains for low-income students and have been a frequent subject of mine. Usually I focus on how KIPP students are taught -- the longer school days, careful teacher recruitment, focus on proper behavior, instructional flexibility and complex rewards and punishments. The political problems McDaniel had to deal with irritate me and seem irrelevant to how children learn, my first interest.

But I have to admit, grudgingly, that McDaniel's battle with the school establishment in Oklahoma City is worth some attention, since he would have far fewer students, or perhaps none at all, in his classrooms today if he had not fought to save his school. His story, based on information from KIPP officials and articles in The Oklahoman, shows that even promising innovations like KIPP must do more than teach children well. There are always going to be adult scuffles going on. Winning them is important, as much as I like to avoid writing about them.

McDaniel, 50, is an unusual figure in KIPP, the group of 52 schools in 16 states and D.C. that have shown some of the largest achievement gains in the country. He is much older and more experienced than most KIPP principals, who tend to be in their late 20s or early 30s. KIPP was started by two principals in their 20s, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg. They often found themselves at war with educators McDaniel's age who had surrendered to the get-along-to-go-along, bureaucratic impulse.

But McDaniel was a very different breed of educator. When Oklahoma City superintendent Bill Weitzel picked him to be the city's first KIPP principal, he displayed the energy and optimism of a teenager. He went through the six month KIPP leadership training. He won school board approval to start his school in the summer of 2002. But the board's contract had a flaw. State law made it valid for only one year. When Weitzel suddenly resigned in January 2003 leaving McDaniel with no bureaucratic protector, both he and KIPP Reach were in trouble.

Hopeful experiments are often threatened by changes in district leadership. Weitzel's replacement told McDaniel and KIPP officials that he wanted KIPP Reach to operate more like a traditional school, remaining under the control of the school board and superintendent. Both he and the board said they would not allow it to become a independently run charter school, as most KIPP schools are, because that would mean raising the per pupil payment to the school from $3,563 to $4,400. They said the district couldn't afford it.

McDaniel, with the help of Feinberg, KIPP Foundation founder (and GAP store magnate) Don Fisher, foundation president Scott Hamilton, foundation general counsel John Kanberg, foundation spokesman Steve Mancini and several others in the organization, worked to build public and political support for the school. Oklahoman editorial writer Christy Watson and education reporter Michael Bratcher, and local NBC reporter Quin Tran, were all invited to visit. In their reports, they emphasized the vibrancy of the teaching and the fact it outscored almost all of the school district's other fifth grades.

McDaniel, a veteran of many bureaucratic wars, had some strategic tools of his own. When the district refused to increase his budget in order to force him to keep the 126 students he had but add no more, he recruited an incoming fifth grade anyway and said the budget limit would force his graduating sixth graders to go elsewhere because he would not have enough money to create a seventh grade for them. This riled their parents. Before a key school board vote, McDaniel visited local churches and inspired more than 500 people to attend the meeting.

They won those battles, but seemed likely to lose the war. The only solution, McDaniel and the KIPP people thought, was to seek charter status. City school administrators denied the application based on the "financial detriment" a new charter school would cause the district. Mancini gave copies of this decision to Bratcher at the Oklahoman, who quoted a state official saying that "financial detriment" was not one of the reasons allowed under state law for denying a charter application. In an op-ed in the Oklahoman, Louis Buchanan, a lawyer and judge who was on the KIPP Reach board, noted that the board had said no to this middle school full of black kids in the northeast part of the city, but had approved a new charter school for the arts in the city's mostly white northwest section.

Finally Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.), a powerful Washington figure who represents part of Oklahoma City, came to the rescue. Istook was one of many influential politicians who had accepted invitations to visit the school. The KIPP people stayed in regular contact with his aides and explained how the district was slowly strangling the school. Istook told the district leadership that he would reconsider supporting a federal grant if they didn't treat KIPP Reach fairly. In addition, several influential city residents, such as Inasmuch Foundation President Bob Ross, rallied behind McDaniel. Eventually Ross brokered a compromise that got the charter approved. And when there was a year's delay in getting KIPP Reach its new funds, Ross's foundation and some others made up the difference.

That's all politics, of course. I would rather write about McDaniel's warm way with students and his careful assessment of teachers. But schools live in a public arena, and it is useful to know one more lesson from the tale of KIPP Reach: All those good statistics that had won McDaniel so much political support turned around and bit him. Just as the charter deal had been completed, the third year results were tabulated and scores in some subjects went down. In the Oklahoman, Bratcher covered the test score drop in detail and Watson in an editorial told the school it was going to have to do better.

It is refreshing to find an educational organization like KIPP that focuses on achievement, but it is a tricky game. It has to keep giving the public scores each year and openly deal with failures. McDaniel has made some staff changes and says he welcomes the easing of the political strain so he can focus on his kids. Mancini, with a candor uncharacteristic for school spokespersons, pointed out that only 35 out of the 63 students who were in KIPP Reach's first fifth grade class graduated from eighth grade four years later. He said about 40 percent of the missing students moved out of the district or out of the state, and only one was asked to leave for disciplinary reasons. More than half of those who transferred from KIPP left because they could not adjust to KIPP's long hours and high standards.

The students who did graduate did very well, and the school's scores rebounded. They all scored proficient or advanced on the state mathematics test, and all but one reached that level in reading, compared to the district averages of 63 percent in math and 59 percent in English. The Deerfield Academy, an exclusive New England boarding school, gave scholarships to three of the KIPP Reach students, which admissions director Jeff Arms said was the most scholarships ever awarded in a single year to graduates of one school.

These numbers, both good and bad, are important to determining how KIPP fits in the effort to improve education for low-income children. I am glad to get the statistics, but of course I will be among the many people demanding more every year. And that will be one more headache for a school warrior like McDaniel who knows this is all a part of the politics of making schools better.

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