By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 6:10 PM
The Knowledge Is Power Program, the nation's and the District's most successful charter school network, has a new official name, KIPP, and a new approach to raising achievement for disadvantaged children.
In its first decade, the network - with 91 schools in 20 states and eight in Washington - focused on creating middle schools that started with fifth-graders two or three years below grade level and got them up to speed by eighth grade. Now it is opening elementary schools, including three here, so that it can start raising achievement in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
The thought is that by fifth grade there will be no need for hero teachers who work 10 hours a day, plus summers and some Saturdays, to save kids who have fallen behind. There will be less stress on staff and more hope for kids.
The move makes sense and conforms to a movement in many city school systems and charter networks to create K-8 schools that will give urban and rural children the consistent support and high standards found in many suburban schools. But I see a problem. This clean progression from making pre-K the main intake point overlooks the messiness of life in the communities being served.
Schools like KIPP are not likely ever to enroll more than a fraction of the population. What happens to the many fifth-graders who are still far behind but find the doors to KIPP (or Uncommon Schools, Achievement First or any of the other successful charters) are closed because the schools filled those classes back in pre-K and kindergarten?
The most effective regular and charter public schools have been experimenting with every promising way to rescue kids who have reached middle or high school still unable to read and write well enough to study independently. If they no longer need to deal with struggling older children, we have lost a great resource for figuring out how to help them.
In my blog, at www.washingtonpost.com/class-struggle, and my colleague Valerie Strauss's blog, at www.washingtonpost.com/answersheet, we've had a debate over a related issue, the attrition rate at KIPP. Strauss ran a thoughtful piece by Century Foundation senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg suggesting that KIPP's record of achievement - raising students on average from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math in just four years - was inflated because many low-performing fifth-graders moved or went back to regular schools before completing the KIPP middle school program.
I also posted Kahlenberg's piece and some of his follow-up comments. He compliments KIPP's work but says we should not compare its schools to regular public schools that must fill up empty spaces with more students, many of them low achievers. In the same way, if KIPP focuses just on students who start in pre-K and kindergarten, it may ignore the needs of fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who could also use nine-hour school days and imaginative teaching.
Two KIPP Foundation administrators, Jonathan Cowan and Steve Mancini, said that KIPP schools have been lowering their attrition rates, which were found in an independent study to be no higher than those at nearby schools. KIPP co-founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin said they share my concern about their new approach freezing out middle-schoolers who need them and promise to admit older students - and open more middle schools - if families demand it.
Susan Schaeffler, leader of KIPP in the District, said she took in kids at every grade level this year and looked for ways to raise them to KIPP standards.
KIPP is too small to ever be the savior of inner-city schools, but it can help the regular schools that must play that role, so they can see how it might be done.