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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.

By Washington Post editors  | March 18, 2009; 5:07 PM ET
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How are the DC KIPP schools doing in comparison? I know a few folks who have left there, citing some of the same kinds of complaints.
While what I have heard is not as extreme as what you have noted in your blog, I do find it somewhat unnerving that KIPP schools demand so much of their teachers to get results. Sure the test scores have improved, but what good is it if faculty & student morale are damaged as a result? Quality of life is a factor that many schools overlook in terms of their relationships with their faculty members.

Posted by: JustUs5 | March 18, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

I teach at a college-prep charter school in Philadelphia. Based on my own experiences, KIPP does appear to have many elements vital for success - more instructional time, clean facilities, materials, top-notch teachers, perks for students to keep them motivated. Still, I hear time and again that their teachers burn out quickly. There are many effective and dedicated teachers working in inner-city schools. When will the broader public commit to supporting them? 70-hour work weeks are more palatable if you can afford a house keeper.

Posted by: EricaJC | March 18, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

After reading this post, I am wondering where do you draw the line between reporting and spinning? I live near the Fresno Unified school district and so I have been following this KIPP story closely. I don’t think all of the allegations are true and the school has posted great state testing results. I hear that they have a pretty strong music program too. However, if you read the district’s report it shows that the issues are much deeper than student discipline, there were concerns about lack of fingerprinting of employees, teachers without appropriate credentials which the school admitted to, failure to do background checks and not following the state testing process. Again, I wonder if it is all true but I think it at least merits interviews with some of the parents of the disciplined students, former KIPP Board members and other people who might be able to shed some light on what’s really happening. Just interviewing the ex principal does not seem right. One last point, it was reported yesterday (3/17/2009) in several local media outlets that the district did provide the letter of good standing. You don’t even mention that the school is in foreclosure on their own loan. For those who do not live in the central valley and you want meaningful coverage of this story, look at the Fresno Bee or SF Examiner web sites.

Posted by: valleyneighbor | March 19, 2009 1:32 AM | Report abuse

I feel disturbed that you appear really blase about what happened at the KIPP school in Fresno. I have been following the story and read several reports. I believe that what happened in Fresno is what happens when there is limited oversight. I know you are really all about KIPP but as a teacher and one that has worked in the inner cities I have been skeptical. Yes KIPP may get results but at what cost to students and teachers. There is also some conflicting data on the success of KIPP. I have read that in some KIPP programs the drop out rate can be as high as 50%. I also am disturbed that KIPP students are expected to be perfect at all times like robots which in even the best circumstances is unrealistic. I really don't approve of you being so in favor of KIPP and additionally if you are reporting on it shouldn't you be a little less bias.

Posted by: erinsglw | March 19, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I apologize for not devoting more space to the Fresno situation, but my editors were already cranky about the length of that post. It was supposed to be of blog length, since this is now my blog, to be composed of my columns and my occasional blog posts. This was to be just a blog post, since my editors feel, probably rightly, that too many of my columns lately have focused on KIPP. But blog posts, they tell me, should be short and snappy, and I need to work on that.
To respond quickly to the good points made by valleyneighbor and erinsglw, the letter released by the Fresno school district does not meet the state requirements and so will not keep the school open. They still say the school has to do more. The details are pretty dense, but I think it is important to note that parent support of the school is very strong--over 200 people at the last school board meeting--and teacher credentialling is a very misleading issue. As happens at many of our best private schools, there are some great KIPP teachers without formal credentials, and plenty of regular schools in the Fresno system have uncredentialled teachers. That 50 percent dropout rate is one of the KIPP myths being passed around the Internet. The truth is that one grade of one KIPP school in Oakland, under very unusual circumstances (the school changed location) had a 59 percent dropout rate its first year. The KIPP average is just 10 percent for established schools, much better than regular schools in their neighborhoods, where families move frequently. But as you both say, teacher burnout at KIPP is a problem. Now that they have proven these great teachers can get such great results, they are working on the burn-out issue--shorter teacher shifts, more parttimers, and other methods. That seems to be a more intelligent approach than junking the KIPP model.

Posted by: jaymathews | March 19, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

What about the below average performance of the 2 KIPP schools in Indiana.
Check their results at

and search for KIPP

Posted by: edlharris | March 19, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

I am writing to provide further clarification, on some of the information that has been posted to date.

First, Fresno Unified School District did issue a qualified letter of good standing to the California School Finance Authority (CSFA) on March 17 for the KIPP Academy Fresno. This letter is absolutely appropriate and meets the state’s requirement from the chartering authorizer as a “status” update on the charter’s operating condition. As a result of the KIPP Foundation requesting the letter by a deadline of March 16, in the spirit of collaboration, we issued the letter. However, as an oversight authority we have to state the facts as they are. The facts are, the school has not addressed all of the issues identified in the Notice to Cure and their financial reports do not accurately state their financial condition. Prior to issuing the letter, we verified with CSFA to ensure that this letter would be sufficient to continue the Proposition 55 funding.

Second, this letter alone does not release the Prop 55 funds to the school. In fact, this is but one step in a very comprehensive fiscal soundness review the school must undergo. In today’s (March 19) Fresno Bee article, Katrina Johantgen, executive director of the California School Finance Authority, said she hasn't yet reviewed the district's letter regarding KIPP. She said many factors go into the funding decision. The letter "is not a magic bullet," she said. "But clearly the relationship with the authorizer [district] is really important."

Third, as to the teacher credentialing issue, let me share the facts. In California it is State Education Code for teachers in core curriculum classes to be appropriately credentialed. In Fresno Unified out of 4,507 certificated positions, we have only 90 teachers in this position, an extremely small percentage. However, we recognize the importance of compliance with the law, and as a result every one of these 90 teachers is in an internship program or on a special permit to be in the classroom and working towards completing the appropriate credential for their assignment. The programs/permits our teachers are in/hold include: Provisional Internship Permit (6 teachers), Short Term Staff Permit (17 teachers), Limited Assignment Permit (19 teachers), and Internship Credential (48 teachers).

Finally, to be clear, there is nothing at this time that Fresno Unified can do to keep the school open. As a charter school that operates independently from the District, this is completely a KIPP Academy Fresno and KIPP Foundation decision. However, District staff have been working diligently with KIPP representatives to resolve the outstanding issues as it is our desire that the school remain open and that this high quality education opportunity be available in our community.

Peri Lynn Turnbull
Chief Information Officer
Fresno Unified School District

Posted by: perilynnturnbull | March 19, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews - thanks for responding to some of the entries. Like I said earlier, I am sure that some (not all) of the allegations are false but I hope the Post, NY Times or some other big national paper does an in-depth article on this because it is a complex and interesting story.

You mis-state two facts. the principal resigned the week of February 20th not January....there was massive media coverage and the report was released in December. Here is where I got my information.

Fresno charter school in furor
Unusual punishments, testing violations alleged as principal resigns.
Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
By Anne Dudley Ellis and Kerri Ginis / The Fresno Bee

Fresno Unified officials say the principal of KIPP Academy Fresno charter school has a "problem with anger" and accuse him in a 63-page report of unorthodox disciplinary techniques, including forcing one student to crawl on his hands and knees and bark.

Under pressure from the district, Principal Chi Tschang announced his resignation this week. About 100 students skipped school Friday to protest his departure, chanting "Save Mr. Tschang" and waving signs in front of the school.Fresno charter school in furor


Excerpts from report on Fresno KIPP school: Abuse, cheating alleged
February 21, 4:42 PM
by Caroline Grannan, SF Education Examiner

The Fresno Unified School District issued a "Notice to Cure and Correct" on Dec. 11, 2008, to Nolan Highbaugh, general counsel for San Francisco-based KIPP schools, based on a 65-page report on problems at Fresno's KIPP Academy. Here are some excerpts from the report.

Posted by: valleyneighbor | March 21, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I personally find it very suspect since The Washington Post Company owns Kaplan Inc. education. To me this is kind of like Ford rating GM cars, they have a financial interest. In my humble opinion it is very deceitful. Washington Post should fully disclose that they have ownership in an educational company to their readers. Also, after looking at the annual report the largest part of the business and the fastest growing is the educational business of Kaplin.

Posted by: dnkarabasz | March 21, 2009 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Kudos to Jay Mathews for writing a very fair piece on KIPP and these two schools. Clearly expanding and scaling a network is very hard work indeed, and work that is far different from the hard work of educating all children.
My recent work (Inside Urban Charter Schools-Harvard Ed Press) highlights differing attitudes around staff burn out. In these successful schools we found very different views about staff: In one school, the attitude is to work young teachers without regard to their personal lives-"do whatever it takes", while at another school, school leaders lament "Every time a teacher leaves our school a bit of the school leaves with them." How KIPP chooses between these two approaches to staffing will tell us a great deal about their ability to scale up a successful model.

Posted by: katherinemerseth | March 27, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Hi Jay and everyone -- Caroline Grannan here, in San Francisco.

The report that some KIPP schools have an attrition rate as high as 60 percent isn't a myth but comes from a study conducted by the research firm SRI International. The report, released in Sept. 2008, studied the five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay Area (a sixth has since opened). The study found an overall attrition rate of 60 percent -- at all five Bay Area KIPP schools. Here is my blog post on that study, which links to the study itself.

Posted by: foggymom | March 28, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse

As a parent of a graduate and a rising 6th grader with KIPP South Fulton Academy in East Point, GA, we have had our share of problems of late which are very similar to the complaints being reported at the Fresno school.

Posted by: sahopkins63 | March 29, 2009 1:45 AM | Report abuse

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