KIPP's Mysterious Tale of Three Cities

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 10:10 AM

Last year, while visiting Houston, I got a look at New Orleans West (NOW), an emergency charter school for 400 Hurricane Katrina evacuee children that Houston officials opened within a few weeks of the tragedy. It was the idea of Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). It was staffed with young educators from the Teach For America program. But a key role was played by Houston school superintendent Abe Saavedra, who tore through a couple of miles of red tape to get the old brick Douglass Elementary School ready for a sudden influx of kids.

NOW principal Gary Robichaux and many of his students and teachers are back in New Orleans, having finished their first year of a new pre-K through eighth grade school, McDonogh 15, in the French Quarter. McDonogh and the new KIPP Believe College Prep in New Orleans has become part of the national network of 52 KIPP schools in 16 states and the District of Columbia.

That is good news, the result of hard work by school officials in those two cities. I wish similar efforts were being made in Anne Arundel County to prevent the closing of the KIPP Harbor Academy in Edgewater, Md., near the state capital of Annapolis. The sudden end of Harbor Academy is puzzling to the parents and students at the school, and to many people across the country, including school officials in New Orleans and Houston, who have seen what KIPP's creative teaching, longer school days and emphasis on building character can do for low-income children.

Houston, where KIPP was born in 1994, and New Orleans, the site of a preliminary KIPP program before Katrina hit in September 2005, have been welcoming KIPP's attempts to find more space for families who want a challenging public education for their children. The children who enrolled in KIPP NOW, all of them low-income and 99 percent of them African American, showed what good teaching and longer days could do, even in less than ideal conditions.

I am going to cite scores from nationally standardized tests, many of them given by KIPP teachers to diagnose students' learning problems without oversight from state officials. These results have to be treated cautiously, but they are similar to KIPP results in dozens of other schools around the country and look legitimate to me. In their first year in Houston, KIPP NOW students did very well. For instance, first graders jumped from the 18th to the 43rd percentile in reading, sixth graders from the 19th to the 66th percentile in math and eighth graders from the 21st to the 40th percentile in reading.

As I have noted in my many columns about KIPP, the program is not perfect. It reaches only a small slice of the inner city and rural children who need better teaching. But no other program is doing as well in low-income neighborhoods. A KIPP analysis of the scores of about 1,400 students in 22 cities who have completed three years at KIPP show they went from the 34th percentile at the beginning of fifth grade to the 58th percentile at the end of the seventh grade in reading and from the 44th percentile to the 83rd percentile in math. About 80 percent of KIPP students are low-income and 95 percent are black or Hispanic. Gains like that for that many disadvantaged children in one program have never happened before.

The KIPP school in Maryland that is closing, Harbor Academy, has also shown gains. Sixty-five percent of its students this year were low-income. Ninety two percent were African American and seven percent Hispanic. When the first group of fifth graders took standardized test as they entered in 2005, they scored at only the 10th percentile in reading and the 16th percentile in math. But by the end of that year they had climbed to the 23rd percentile in reading and the 46th percentile in math. On the Maryland School Assessment tests, Harbor Academy's portion of students scoring at the proficient or advanced level went from 43 percent in reading when they were fifth graders to 50 percent when they were sixth graders, and from 44 to 71 percent in math.

That sounds promising. So why is the school closing? Unlike Houston and New Orleans school officials, officials in Anne Arundel County, where Harbor Academy is located, said they could not provide enough space for the school's planned expansion. Like other KIPP schools, Harbor Academy promised its families it would add a seventh grade next year and an eighth grade the year after that. Anne Arundel County, and several private groups the KIPP people approached, said sorry, no room.

This turn of events has, to say the least, surprised many people who care about improving urban and rural education. Joseph Hawkins, a veteran education researcher based in Maryland, said "many smart communities across the country are standing in long lines to have the opportunity to open a KIPP. Not because it's the flavor of the day or a silver bullet, but because it truly works. Why would educators committed to and responsible for raising the academic achievement levels of minority youngsters hesitate to do the right thing by not supporting KIPP? . . . This kind of behavior, close to neglect in my mind, leaves me speechless."

Harbor Academy teacher Sage Paarlberg noted the wealth gap in Annapolis, which has both expensive waterside villas and more per people per capita in public or subsidized housing than anywhere else in the nation. "How can we look the children of our community in the eyes and tell them that we didn't try everything possible to give them the best opportunity we could?," she said in an e-mail to me. "Who would like to tell the 115 children in KIPP Harbor Academy who have worked hard for the past two years that nobody on the school board, the county council or in the city government, was willing to take a chance on them as they work to change their future?"

Since the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation requires its middle schools to have a fifth grade--a key part of its reform model--and since Harbor Academy would only have room for a fifth grade next year if it broke its promise to this year's sixth graders and told them not to come back, the school's board has concluded that with no room to grow it must close the school, KIPP officials said.

Jallon Brown, the Harbor Academy school leader, said she began requesting space at Annapolis Middle School more than two years ago. According to a school district facilities report, Annapolis Middle is about 1,000 students below its capacity, and Harbor Academy only needed enough space for 200 students. Washington Post staff writer William Wan reported Friday that "county school administrators, however, said that some of the space is being used by resources teachers and other programs. Administrators also said they worried that an International Baccalaureate program set to debut next year would draw more middle-schoolers to Annapolis Middle. And with renovations at other city schools planned, the space might be needed to temporarily house students."

Anne Arundel schools spokeswoman Maneka Wade said in a statement: "We are sorry to hear that KIPP has decided to close. The school system did everything it could to help KIPP in its search for available space that would have suited the school's needs. Unfortunately, the school system had no such space and KIPP could not find space elsewhere. We have made all possible resources available to KIPP and find its closing unfortunate for the entire school system community. It is important to remember that no matter where the students are educated, they are our students. We will welcome those students and teachers back into our other public schools."

I am sure county school officials are sincere in their regrets. But it is interesting to me that they don't say precisely how many classrooms at Annapolis Middle School are being occupied by school staffers, and whether there might be other places they could go. They do not estimate how many IB students may be drawn to the middle school, a figure that is almost certainly available since most would-be IB parents have made their decisions by now. Nor do they enumerate how many students will be coming to Annapolis Middle from which renovating schools, figures that a school district would usually already have in hand since renovations are scheduled well in advance.

Harbor Academy officials said they even offered $100,000 a year to lease the small part of the middle school they needed. But that didn't work either.

For now, perhaps we should forget this unpleasant episode in one city and congratulate the school officials in two other cities, Houston and New Orleans, for bending over backward to help poor children eager for a chance to learn at a level poor children are rarely allowed to reach in this country. But I still wonder what kept Anne Arundel County from doing the same for its kids.

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