Montgomery County school officials plan to visit a nationally acclaimed charter school in New York next month, reviving what charter supporters thought were poor prospects for establishing one of the independent public schools in the county.
Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, along with other administrators and a teacher who supports charters, will visit KIPP Academy in the Bronx on Feb. 3, said Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Porter.
The trip will occur nearly two years after the county school board rejected a group's application to start a Jaime Escalante Charter School.
Joseph A. Hawkins, president of the Escalante school group, which appealed that denial to the state school board, said "we are cautiously excited" about the New York visit. He said Julie Greenberg, a Montgomery Blair High School math teacher who is part of the Escalante group, will accompany the Montgomery County officials.
Despite the school board's March 2001 decision that the Escalante plan did not offer much that was not already found in regular county schools, Porter said, Weast remained interested in charter schools, which are tax-supported schools run independently of local districts.
KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. Its first two fifth- to eighth-grade middle schools -- in Houston and the Bronx -- have taken low-income, low-achieving students and produced the highest test scores in their areas.
Three more schools were established last year, including the D.C. KIPP:KEY Academy that also has produced high test scores. Ten more KIPP schools began in fall 2002 throughout the country, including a Baltimore school recently visited by Montgomery officials.
The schools set strict standards for behavior and academic effort, keep children in class for nine hours each school day, plus many Saturday mornings, and have an 11-month academic year. If a child's homework is not done, the parents are called to the school that day to discuss it. Don and Doris Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing stores, fund a training program for KIPP principals and say they will support further expansion.
"We have explored a number of innovative education plans within the school system," Porter said. "KIPP is one of very few national models that has received significant attention for bona fide academic success that rises to the level of instruction we want in our school system."
The proposed Jaime Escalante school, named for the Los Angeles math teacher portrayed in the film "Stand and Deliver," had planned to adopt the middle and high school programs of the International Baccalaureate Organization, a rigorous curriculum already used in four county schools. But the school board's rejection led Escalante backers to consider KIPP, whose founders had the same high expectations for disadvantaged children.
Hawkins said that at a Dec. 13 meeting, both Escalante backers and school officials realized they shared an interest in KIPP. They sent a joint letter to the State Board of Education putting aside the charter appeal for now. Hawkins said his group was also encouraged by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s support of charters.
Porter said one plan being discussed calls for starting a KIPP school as part of a new middle school at the old Belt Junior High School building, to be reopened in September 2005. Belt has a capacity for 810 students, while KIPP schools usually have about 320 students.
David Levin, superintendent of the KIPP Academy in the Bronx and one of the two Teach for America teachers who created KIPP in 1994, said two or three visiting delegations tour his school each week. He said some school boards opposed to charter schools have become more receptive after being told the KIPP model would be used.