Venture Philanthropy gives $5.5 million for expansion of KIPP DC charter schools

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

It's another sign of private money shaking up public education in the District: A $5.5 million gift will dramatically help expand a network of high-performing charter schools in the city, with a goal of more than doubling the number of students enrolled by 2015.

The grant by Venture Philanthropy Partners, a nonprofit organization using the principles of venture-capital investment to help children from low-income families in the Washington region, will fund Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. The grant is to be announced Monday.

"VPP recognized our ability to impact not just the students we have, but the students throughout D.C.," said Allison Fansler, president and chief operating officer of KIPP DC. "We want to set a high bar for what's possible."

Private funding has been crucial to D.C. schools, said Andrew Rotherham of the national nonprofit group Bellwether Education Partners. "If you look at the celebrated schools, they've all had to use creative strategies" in financing, including substantial capital campaigns. The fact that so many foundations and individual donors have been willing to chip in has meant that charter schools have been able to grow much more quickly.

That has also had a political impact, said Rotherham, a former D.C. charter school trustee. "It really set the stage for the most dramatic reforms you're now seeing in the school district. . . . It's very hard to argue that you would have had a very ambitious, aggressive reformer brought in like [Schools Chancellor] Michelle Rhee if the traditional schools hadn't lost a third of their market to charter schools."

Charter schools continue to stir controversy, in part because some worry that they draw money away from other public schools, and many private investors have chosen to support reform efforts in the traditional school system.

Carol Thompson Cole, Venture's president and chief executive, said the organization has talked a lot about whether to invest directly in the public school system but concluded that it would be difficult to have the same impact there. Many of the nonprofit groups it funds have programs in public schools, and Venture has a good relationship with Rhee, but it chose not to give money directly to government-run programs, Thompson Cole said.

Venture seeks strong nonprofit leaders, she said. It tries to apply tough standards to evaluate which nonprofits are performing best. This grant is the largest in the fund's decade-long history and the largest to KIPP DC.

KIPP's national network of free, open-enrollment public charter schools, which provide a college preparatory education to low-income students, emphasizes extra learning time, rigorous standards and support for children. KIPP DC students attend school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, three Saturdays a month and for a month every summer.

KIPP DC started its first school, KEY Academy, in an Anacostia church basement in 2001, and it has been a top-performing public middle school in the city. A national study recently found that KIPP middle school students did significantly better on math and reading tests than their peers at traditional public schools. Critics say the charters' results are skewed because parents who are motivated to help their children succeed are more likely to enroll them there or because students who have trouble rising to high expectations might transfer.

This past academic year, there were seven KIPP schools in the District, with about 1,500 students. By 2015, KIPP hopes to have 3,400 students in 10 schools. The schools will grow at the three KIPP campuses, on Benning Road in the Marshall Heights neighborhood, on Douglass Road in Anacostia and on P Street NW in Shaw. Eventually, the network will include three early-childhood schools, three elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school.

The grant will pay for the backbone of the system -- expanding its financial and management structure to support more students and recruiting teachers and students.

The funding will also improve educators' ability to collect, analyze and respond to data so that they keep pushing to improve, Thompson Cole said.

That means that as teachers give tests to see how students might fare on end-of-year exams, they will get results in real time. "We can adjust in class the next morning," Fansler said, slowing down lessons or reviewing material.

KIPP DC will also use the money to expand community outreach. Now that the schools are permanent fixtures in neighborhoods, Fansler said, they can invest in the community and build partnerships; they recently hosted a dental clinic for families, for example.

And they can learn from parents what they'd like to see more of, such as arts in the classroom. Jessica Cunningham, chief academic officer at KIPP DC, said the grant means that "we can do the things we've been talking about doing, and wishing we could do, for years."

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