Turmoil at Two KIPP Schools
My new book about the Knowledge Is Power Program, “Word Hard. Be Nice,” details the conflict, misunderstanding, heartbreak and chaos that accompanied the founding and growth of what has turned to be, in my view, the most educationally successful group of public schools in the country.
There are now KIPP schools in 19 states and the District. Their students have gone, on average, from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 40th to the 82nd percentile in math over four years of middle school. Seeing those scores, some people may assume that KIPP has solved all the problems of educating impoverished children. Having now visited 38 of the 66 KIPP schools, I can assure you that is not true.
As far as I can tell, from watching KIPP educators at work and eavesdropping on their cellphone conversations as they drive me around their cities, it is just as difficult to keep a successful KIPP school going now as it was for KIPP co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, the protagonists of my book, to get the network started in the first place.
That is particularly evident at two KIPP schools on opposite sides of the country, the KIPP AMP Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y, and the KIPP Academy Fresno in California.
A majority of the teachers at KIPP AMP have signed cards to join the United Federation of Teachers because they are unhappy with the way the school has been run since a recent leadership change. The principal of KIPP Fresno has resigned, and the school’s future is in doubt after several parents complained that he subjected their children to abuse.
In terms of academic achievement, both of these schools are exceptional. At the end of 2007, 80 percent of KIPP Fresno’s seventh-graders scored proficient or advanced in algebra, compared to only 17 percent of students in regular Fresno public schools. In English Language Arts, 81 percent of KIPP seventh-graders scored proficient or advanced while the regular students were at 29 percent.
At KIPP AMP at the end of 2007, 97 percent of KIPP sixth-graders met or exceeded standards in math and 77 percent met or exceeded standards in English Language Arts, compared to 46 percent and 40 percent, respectively, for regular public school students in that Bronx district.
Both schools are charters that admit mostly minority students—82 percent Hispanic and African American at KIPP Fresno and 98 percent African American at KIPP AMP. The families of 73 percent of the students at both KIPP Fresno and KIPP AMP are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Both have received much favorable publicity and parental support.
So what is going on?
The key to the success of KIPP schools, to my mind, is the network’s commitment to finding the best possible leader for each school and leaving that person, and the teachers he or she hires, to decide as a team what methods work best for students. All they have to do is show, with test scores, that their students are showing significant achievement gains that will put them on a path to college.
I don’t imagine the KIPP principal selection committee, which includes Levin and Feinberg, would ever pick someone who rejected established KIPP practices like the nine-hour school days, required summer school, music, games and year-end, week-long field trips. But the anointed school leaders---who generally have splendid records as classroom teachers---can pretty much do what they want. This is particularly true in the hiring and firing of faculty.
When KIPP school leaders are not doing well, the schools will have trouble. That seems to be the case with both Fresno and AMP. KIPP national and regional leaders appear to have taken steps to change each school’s leadership, as they have done in other instances, although it is not clear at either of these schools what went wrong and who is at fault.
At KIPP Fresno, school leader Chi Tschang, who founded the school in 2004, resigned in January in order, he said, to remove himself as a barrier to the school’s continued operation. Shortly after the Fresno school district released a report based on interviews with current and former parents, students and KIPP board members accusing Tschang—among other things-- of making a student crawl on his hands and knees while barking, keeping students outside in the rain as a disciplinary measure and yelling "all day" at students caught shoplifting near the campus. Tschang told me these accusations were either false or ripped out of context. Many of KIPP teachers and parents have backed him up. But national KIPP leaders have not criticized the district’s report and instead have supported the school’s new leader, William Lin. The school district has the power to close the school by refusing to release a letter KIPP Fresno needs to access a state charter school facility grant. As of yesterday, the district had not issued the letter.
Fresno school superintendent Michael Hanson has praised KIPP’s achievements and told me the district “has been working with KIPP to resolve all of the issues so that the school will in fact remain open.”
At KIPP AMP, the future is not quite as murky. New York City school district officials have strongly supported the four KIPP schools in the city, including AMP. All are run by Levin, who is on paternity leave since his first child was born last month and has had little to say publicly about the union situation. Like most charters, nearly all KIPP schools are non-union, but the teachers in the original New York KIPP school started by Levin in the Bronx are union members, and UFT leaders in the past have been supportive of KIPP.
I interviewed two AMP teachers, Luisa Bonifacio and Kashi Nelson, who were part of the group seeking union representation. Both said they do not want to change the KIPP formula. They only want the school to reaffirm, with their union representatives, its commitment to a team spirit that includes honest communication with all teachers and help for those who need to improve their instructional skills. Bonifacio and Nelson said they and other teachers had noticed problems---including erratic schedule changes, mismanagement of study halls and clumsy disciplining of teachers---after school founder Ky Adderley moved to a new job at KIPP New York City headquarters last year and two of the school’s original teachers, Jeff Li and Melissa Parry, took over as co-principals.
Since the AMP teachers announced their request for union representation, Li has left the school and Parry has been named principal. Susan Winston, a veteran New York City school administrator who helped Levin win several battles for survival of his first school, has been at AMP every day the last several weeks, Nelson said.
Nelson, 39, is older and more experienced than most of the rest of the AMP faculty, and has had a recent change of heart that may affect what happens next. Last year she persuaded her entire family—husband and two daughters---to move from North Carolina to New York because she wanted to teach at KIPP. As a regular public school teacher and assistant principal in Wake County, she had become an admirer of the charter schools, but felt there were too many restrictions on them in North Carolina. She researched the issue and decided New York was most likely to have the kind of charter school jobs she wanted. She quickly found a job teaching social studies at KIPP AMP. She told me that although her husband has yet to find a job in New York as good as the one he had in North Carolina, she has enrolled her 13-year-old daughter at AMP and considers the sacrifices she made to teach there among the best decisions she ever made.
Last Thursday, she said, after inviting Levin to come to her classroom for an after-school chat, she changed her mind about joining the UFT and told the union she was withdrawing her request for a union card. On Friday, she said, she had an emotional meeting with several other AMP teachers, some of whom said they might also change their mind. She said Levin refused to discuss the union situation with her at their meeting and made no promises about changes at the school. “He just said that he was very happy to talk to me, and that it has always been his vision for KIPP schools that when we have a problem we get together to find a solution,” she said.
The UFT has filed grievances against KIPP for what it has called attempts to intimidate teachers by seeking information from students on their flaws as instructors. Union officials have not yet responded to my request for comment on Nelson’s change of mind and the current state of negotiations at KIPP AMP.
At both KIPP Fresno and KIPP AMP, all sides appear to support what KIPP has been doing to raise student achievement to rare heights. Yet keeping standards that high in urban schools is not easy. KIPP school leaders, for instance, are quick to fire teachers who do not perform well in their classes even after months of training and assistance. This saves those students from that teacher’s inadequate instruction, but KIPP principals and teachers acknowledge it is often difficult to find a good replacement for that dismissed teacher in the middle of the school year.
That means unrelenting stress on KIPP school leaders. Can their remarkable record be sustained under such pressure? Can KIPP weather times of trouble as the network swells to 84 schools this summer? What happens the next few months at KIPP Fresno and KIPP AMP will provide some interesting answers.
Washington Post editors
| March 18, 2009; 5:07 PM ET
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