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Jay on the Web: Middle Class Children in KIPP

It has been a while since I had a guest columnist in this space. I have never before turned the blog over to one younger than my own children. So let me introduce Catharine Bellinger, a Princeton sophomore who has plans to start a campus journal on education policy.

I suggested she practice with a topic provocative enough to get her in trouble, a good place for all writers to be. My question to her, inspired by her experiences in the D.C. schools, is: “Should middle class parents send their kids to KIPP?”

I have written a great deal about that successful network of public charter schools, known for raising the achievement of low-income students in our poorest urban and rural neighborhoods. I am hearing from some middle-class parents who would like some of that teaching for their own children. Here is Bellinger’s take on whether that will work. Her email address is Let her, and me, know what you think.

By Catharine Bellinger

KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a group of mostly middle schools in 20 states and the District. Its D.C. schools, all public charters, are among the highest performing schools in the city. After they complete eighth grade, KIPP students go on to attend Washington area magnet and private schools such as National Cathedral (NCS), St. Albans, Potomac, St. Andrews and Sidwell Friends.

That would seem to appeal to middle class parents, but very few of their children attend KIPP schools. The schools are located in impoverished neighborhoods and intensively recruit low-income students, based on the founders’ desire to give inner-city children what they are often denied: a rigorous education that will prepare them for college.
Some middle class critics have called KIPP schools prisons in disguise, most unsuitable for parents who want their children to think for themselves. Education professor and policy blogger Jim Horn, for instance, says KIPP students “are forced to give up being children, are forced to give up their friends, are wrenched away from their community connections, and forced to give up the larger portions of their souls.” Horn has given no indication so far that he has spent any time inside a KIPP school, however.

After spending a year observing and working as a teacher’s assistant at KIPP DC: AIM Academy, I can tell you that his description is far from the truth.

KIPP was founded by two Teach For America alumni in 1994. Its students have achieved remarkable results, with test score gains unprecedented for urban neighborhoods, despite coming from homes where parents are poor and never came close to attending college.

In 2001, Susan Schaeffler, now Executive Director of KIPP DC, founded the first KIPP school in Washington: KEY Academy. Students at KEY quickly became among the highest performing in the District of Columbia, outscoring their peers even in the affluent neighborhoods of Northwest DC. This September there will be seven KIPP schools in DC, all operating under the same philosophy of high expectations, more time in school, power for principals to make crucial decisions, a commitment to excellence and the relentless pursuit of high achievement.

Over the course of my senior year of high school at the National Cathedral School, I observed the classes of every 7th grade teacher, two 6th grade teachers, and one 5th grade teacher at AIM. I frequently chatted with the rest of the faculty at AIM and watched them interacting with their students in the hallways. The level of creativity, energy, and purpose displayed by many of those teachers was impressive, even when compared to what I saw in the classrooms of NCS, or the Potomac School in McLean, which I attended from kindergarten through 6th grade.

It is teaching with a clearly defined purpose. A KIPP teacher walks into her classroom thinking that by the time she leaves, every student will be able to perform a certain skill. She writes that skill on the board, demonstrates the skill, has students practice the skill and makes sure every student can do it. If some students are struggling, she reinforces the lesson or re-teaches it the next day. Many KIPP teachers collect “exit slips”—mini-assessments—from students as they leave.

The approach might sound rigid, but teachers come up with creative and playful methods. I’ve seen students draw scenes from Macbeth with captions that include both Shakespearean and modern English. Fifth-graders sing songs and chant rhymes to help them remember math concepts.

An NCS teacher, on the other hand, walks in thinking that today the class will discuss a certain topic. She may give a lecture with a Power Point slideshow, then have the students ask questions. Many classes consist entirely of student discussion. There may more digressions than in a KIPP class, which in some ways is a plus. But there is less classroom support than at KIPP for students without the requisite reading and writing skills or interests.

Although NCS has recently added a Teaching and Learning Center and mandated that teachers reduce the homework load, most teachers approach class as a time for students to exercise skills they already possess—whether by taking notes in a lecture class or participating in a discussion. Some students improve out of necessity, but others find that they fall behind.

I often had highly intelligent and engaging teachers at NCS and Potomac. One history teacher adopted a Schwarzenegger-esque accent and proclaimed herself “our German mother” while teaching us about the Vikings. An English teacher exuberantly directed a weekend project to build a life-size model of Frankenstein’s monster out of chicken wire and papier-mâché.

The same kind of educator is common at KIPP. KIPP teachers and students enjoy as many field trips and extracurricular activities as students in private and affluent neighborhood schools--if not more. AIM teachers took students to see a play by Bo Wilson, followed by a visit from the playwright. A team of 7th and 8th graders goes horseback riding in Brandywine, Maryland, every other Saturday. Students staged a full-length musical after excitedly volunteering to practice hours each week.

At both KIPP and NCS, the teaching is often inspired. But the different backgrounds of the students at each school can affect parents’ decisions. Most of the students at KIPP DC enter fifth grade one or two grade levels behind, and have to work hard to catch up. But KIPP schools in the District, as well as other cities, are about to undergo a profound shift in the preparation of fifth graders. Students who have attended the new KIPP elementary schools will arrive at fifth grade with skills that are significantly above grade level, like students at Washington area private schools.

Would middle class parents send their children to KIPP? A few have, particularly those who live in neighborhoods where the regular public schools are below par. Is there room for more? That is less clear. According to Schaeffler, the executive director of KIPP DC, “The school is designed to support kids who might be coming from backgrounds that don’t have the same resources available to them as families in more affluent neighborhoods.”

Schaeffler said KIPP welcomes families from all backgrounds, but has found that middle class parents are not always happy about long school days, Saturday classes and required summer school that interfere with family plans. “Sometimes they have other resources...that conflict with our comprehensive approach,” she said.

Any school filled with great teachers is right for some, but not all, students. Some students need the challenge of peers already performing far above grade level. For others, it may be more important to have teachers who craft each lesson around a particular skill, whether it’s how to attack a difficult word problem or how to write a persuasive essay. There’s a lot KIPP can learn from NCS, which excels at pushing its students to take charge in the classroom and think critically, and a lot NCS can learn from KIPP, where teachers approach every lesson as an opportunity to help their students develop a new skill and master it.

Middle class children often have needs as varied as children from low-income homes. Some will benefit from the KIPP approach. Some will do better at NCS. But KIPP is the more dynamic model, changing rapidly as it spreads around the country, while NCS and other private schools use teaching methods that have worked for decades. If we compare the two approaches ten years from now, the choice for parents may seem very different than it does today.

By Washington Post Editors  | July 10, 2009; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  Catharine Bellinger, KIPP  
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Thank you, Ms. Bellinger, for an interesting and well-written post.

I am a retired teacher who spent over thirty years in low-performing schools. One thing that is frequently overlooked is the fact that at least a third of the children in these schools are achieving at grade level. Some are gifted, just as they are in the general population. Their parents are often just as concerned about their education as middle-class parents, although they are without the same resources. While I was teaching, I would often think to myself, "This child would excel at any school. I wish more opportunities were available to him." I would sometimes encourage the parents to seek transfers or scholarships to "better" schools (i.e. schools with more affluent students).

KIPP schools have attracted and retained this type of student. They have based their success on the "secret" to a good education known by almost all middle-class parents: A "good" school is a school that is populated by high performing and well-behaved children whose parents value education.

So if the KIPP schools continue to educate the children of the most ambitious parents in the inner-city, then, yes, some middle-class parents will place their students in these schools. However, if these parents have a choice between the affluent population of suburban public or private school and a KIPP school, I predict they will always choose the school with the highest achieving population because that's what educated parents usually do.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | July 10, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

The schedule is exactly why I would not want to send my child to a KIPP school. It may be a good idea for disadvantaged kids whose families are unable or unwilling to provide those types of enrichment experiences at home. But I can, and even 30 hrs/wk for 9 mos/yr seems like a lot of time for my young child to be in an institutional setting.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | July 10, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

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