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Have We Been KIPP-notized?

| David Markus

When the Edutopia coverage team arrived at the campus of KIPP King Collegiate High School in San Lorenzo, California, I was carrying some extra baggage. About five years ago, I had viewed televised reports about the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools in Houston and New York City, showing sixth, seventh and eighth graders, mostly African American and Latino, dressed in school uniforms and expressing their devotion to KIPP and its intensive approach to learning.

Footage of KIPP kids chanting their lessons in unison and drumming on their desks struck me as kind of Orwellian. And when a KIPP cofounder spoke of his students having been "kippnotized," alluding to their conversion to the rigors of the school, the word play didn't seem funny.

A Scalable KIPP Solution?

Fast-forward to the present. KIPP has become one of the fastest growing and best-known public charter school networks in the country. Since 2001, they have started more public charter schools across the United States than any other nonprofit in the last decade. They have launched many under-served middle schoolers on the path to college and career, and KIPP's positive, strategic impact on the lives of its students is hard to argue with. And with the KIPP network now grown to 109 schools, some even argue that it is emerging as the viable, scalable alternative to traditional public schooling in economically deprived neighborhoods.

Wow. Really? Just 109 schools can foretell a solution for the tens of thousands of public schools we will need to give America's poorer kids a fair shake? Seems like a stretch. But as I shook hands with Jason Singer, principal of KIPP King Collegiate, I vowed to drop my bags at the curb, and simply look for answers.

To be clear, and to be fair, the focus of our story is not the KIPP network. It is about San Lorenzo's KIPP King Collegiate (KKC), and its teachers, students, and staff. We wanted to find out what KKC is doing to enhance the learning process and to help kids -- who might otherwise never have the opportunity -- go on to college and into the economic mainstream.

Lessons from One KIPP School

Here's what we learned. First, from the teachers: They are on a mission to deliver their students to college armed with the tools it takes to succeed. No reasonable effort is spared and no hours are too long to achieve this transformative result.

Two boys and a girl sitting at their desks

Students at KIPP King Collegiate High School must use and hone their critical-thinking skills in every class and at all grade levels.

Credit: Zachary Fink

Second, we learned from the students -- in spontaneous, unrehearsed conversations -- that yes, devotion to academics is rigorous and the hours spent studying are long, "way longer," as one boy explained, than at other schools in the San Lorenzo Unified School District. Discipline is strict, and "sometimes too much," according to a girl who just finished her freshman year. Personally, I have seen far stricter consequences for infractions at other schools. We saw no chants or drumming, which doesn't mean it doesn't happen -- or, of course, that it's necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, we discovered the conceptual opposite of group chanting: students engaged in the highly individualized practice of learning through "critical thinking." We saw students sift through diverse arguments and make informed choices between multiple options in search of a best path forward. We saw this in academics, in discipline, and in building school culture. KIPP Principal Singer and his team believe that the ability to think critically is the single most effective tool KKC can pass along to it students, and that nothing will serve them better in college.

A Friendly Challenge for KIPP

Check out our coverage, and see what you think. You may discover some approaches to learning and character development worth emulating in your own school -- or at home with your own kids.

As to my prior-perceptions-of-KIPP baggage, I have unpacked and put away most but not all of it. Orwellian? No, not even close. More age of Socrates than "Animal Farm."

KIPP as the scalable, closest thing to a silver bullet for what ails education in our poor communities? Again, no. Not with the diverse realities of special-needs students, ELL students, and rural populations, and the vastly different per pupil resources available state to state. And not so long as wealthy individuals and corporations are reluctant to help resource traditional public schools in the same way many have done for KIPP.

But I do believe there is something positive every high school can take from KIPP King Collegiate to enhance learning among its students. And if I were to extend a friendly challenge to the KIPP network, it would be to redouble its efforts to reach out to colleagues in traditional public schools to share best practices, reciprocally. Not an easy task in our current, far-too-polarized, charter-versus-traditional-public-school environment, but a challenge that ought never be let to fall by the wayside.

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Comments (4)

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Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Fair Point, Harsh Assessment

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Dear docpr,
You accurately point out that KCC's CA Star test results are cause for legitimate concern and that KCC has a problem to solve. As you may know these low scores are actually higher than at nearby San Lorenzo High School and lower than at the other high school in the district. No doubt you are also aware of KCC's much higher results on the Star history tests. Which makes it impossible for me to concur with your characterization of KCC's performance as a "disgrace." No student anywhere, public school or charter school, has his or her cause advanced by the harsh hyperbole of us adults.
KCC, who has done much good, has work to do in the math arena.

Executive Director, Jack Johnson Center for Math Education

You've got to be kidding!

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Your glowing blog about the Kipp high school in San Lorenzo does not seem to be backed up by the facts when it comes to mathematics--a typical Achilles heel for KIPP schools in the Bay Area, by the way. The latest California math STAR data provide the following results for the San Lorenzo KIPP school on percentage of students failing to reach grade level (Proficiency) in math: Algebra 1 - 86%, Geometry - 67%, Algebra 2 - 84%, Summative - 50%. This is to say, for math subjects taken by these students between grades 9 and 11, the vast majority test below grade level except on the summative test where they test at 50%. And this is in a system that prides itself on two things: test performance and success for minority, particularly black, students. When it comes to black students at this school, by the way (20% of the student body), the math failure rate (below grade level) is as follows: Algebra 1 - 91%, Geometry - 78%, Algebra 2 - 91%, summative - no data (only 3 students enrolled in courses beyond Algebra 2!). It appears that this school fails pitifully on the two measures that the KIPP system prides itself upon. This looks like a disgrace to me. How does it strike you?

Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Important points, Ms. A

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Ms. A,

Your comments are right on the money. Thanks for taking the time.

I am with you; there are uncounted excellent teachers working just as hard in traditional public schools as there are teachers performing at these levels in charter schools like KIPP. Which is why I agitate as often as I can to have charters and local district schools exchange notes, share lessons learned, and collaborate generally. Not nearly enough of that is going on and both parties could benefit, IMHO.

And you are right, too, that all KIPP schools are not shining successes. Here is a link to a KIPP school "report card" from a KIPP published report: You will find answers to most of your questions in there. As you will see, there are some weaker performers, something I have heard the KIPP leadership readily admit. But the fact is there are more successes than not, and I think some worthy insights are there to be gleaned for schools and educators with less economically advantaged populations. By shining the light on what's working at KIPP, we do not diminish the efforts of those making equally important strides reaching a far broader base of students in our public schools.

As I said above in the blog, KIPP is no silver bullet for fixing education. Our ultimate goal must be to improve the learning process in the district schools where most of our children come to learn.

Thanks to all of you who work every day to help make this happen.

9th grade reading teacher from Jacksonville, FL

Hi David, I found your blog

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Hi David,

I found your blog about KIPP schools very enlightening. I have been hearing for years about KIPP's supposed impact on communities in areas similar to where I teach. I have heard about the longer hours that teachers work and their abundance of dedication to their students. However, I am still waiting to see how that is different than what my colleagues and myself do every day in our non-"KIPPnotized" urban high school.

Last year in our district, a new KIPP school was offered as the "magic bullet" for our community's lowest-performing population. It opened to wide fanfare and the Florida governor even stopped by the new campus to put his stamp of approval on a bill mandating that teacher performance pay be linked to the state's high-stakes assessment. Interestingly enough, the KIPP Jacksonville school scored an "F" on the state assessment. All year, we had been hearing about how KIPP would transform our community; however, in the eyes of the accountability police, KIPP, on paper, had failed.

As a teacher in one of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Florida, I will be the first to say that high-stakes test scores do not accurately or comprehensively measure to growth of individual students. All stakeholders at my school have been working diligently to change the ideals and behaviors of our school culture, although the test scores (so far) have not necessarily reflected the growth we've made. Yet, when the KIPP school failed to make the grade, there was not much public outcry about their lack of success (as opposed to the public's reaction to our failing public high schools).

Have you conducted any research about KIPP schools and their school grades based on high-stakes testing results? Have many of those KIPP schools improved greatly from their first year of existence to the second? Also, what is the retention rate of most KIPP schools?

Again, thanks for an informative article.

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David Markus Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

KIPP King Collegiate High School

  • Featured strategy:
    • Critical Thinking
  • Location:
    • San Lorenzo, CA
  • Setting:
    • Suburban
  • Grades:
    • 9-12
  • Enrollment:
    • (2009-10)
  • Student population:
    • (2009-10)
      69% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch
      40% Latino
      30% Asian
      19% African American
      5% Caucasian
      5% other race/ethnicity
      2% individualized education programs
      20% English-language learners
  • Expenditures per average daily attendance (ADA):
    • School: $9,872
      District: $8,096
      State (CA): $8,452
  • Graduation rate:
    • School (first graduating class 2011): 94%
      State (CA): 74%
  • Student Achievement:
    • KIPP King Collegiate High School graduated its first class of seniors in June 2011. All seniors were accepted into college.