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KIPP Concentrates On New Schools, Not Turnarounds

Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio

The charter school operator is opening a new location for kindergarten and first grade in north St. Louis this fall and plans to have six schools in St. Louis five years from now.

On her cell phone, Tiara Abu has a short video showing her and 5-year-old Jawon, sitting on his bed, giving a cheer and doing their best version of jazz hands.

What was the occasion?

“He had just counted to 100 for me,” explained Abu, adding: I hadn’t asked him to.”

Abu, who will be the founding leader of the KIPP Victory Academy that will open in north St. Louis this fall, uses her encounter with Jawon – class of 2027 – as an example of two things: How KIPP reaches out to students at their homes and how excited those who live near the once-abandoned school building are that it will be contributing to the revitalization of their neighborhood.

KIPP Victory, which expects to open with 220 students in kindergarten and first grade, will be the second location for the highly regarded nationwide charter school operator, following the opening of KIPP Inspire, a middle school, in 2009 in south St. Louis. KIPP plans three elementary and three middle schools in the next several years. A high school could come later; all of the schools will be sponsored by Washington University.

KIPP Inspire, a middle school, opened in a rehabbed building adjacent to St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church at 2647 Ohio in south St. Louis. KIPP Victory is moving into the former Mitchell School, built 50 years ago at 655 Arcade but closed by the St. Louis Public Schools system in 2008 because of dwindling enrollment and low achievement scores.

Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, toured the school last week to check out the renovation and talk about the vision he has for collaboration between his company and the city schools. He called the partnership a “win-win” proposition for both parties because KIPP will be able to use its funds on instruction instead of property and KIPP students’ test scores will be counted in with those of city school students.

He credited Superintendent Kelvin Adams for being innovative and flexible in spearheading the new arrangement. KIPP isn’t in the business of turning around failing schools, he said, at least not yet. But new ways of collaboration are always welcome.

“We have a real desire to start serving children earlier than fifth grade,” Barth said, “because we know if we get them as young as 5, the sky’s the limit. And so we sat down with Superintendent Adams.

Credit Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio
Richard Barth

“Here you’ve got facilities that are unused. You’ve got a neighborhood, from what I understand, where people are excited to get this school building back into use, as part of the neighborhood’s continued revitalization. And we’re excited to open an elementary school this summer.

“A building that would have been left to be mothballed is back in use. It’s great for the community and one of our best partnerships out there.”

Abu has heard that excitement firsthand. Like all cell phones issued to KIPP personnel, hers is on 12 hours a day or longer, and word of mouth about the new school is spreading quickly. Nearly half of its slots are filled already, and she anticipates full enrollment by the end of the month.

“Neighbors are already calling me,” she said, “asking, ‘What can I do?’ They’re so excited to see the neighborhood being revitalized.”

A winning formula

KIPP’s formula for success is well known. Students’ days begin at 7 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. They attend class four weeks longer than most public schools; classes also meet on some Saturdays. As a result, KIPP says, students often make two years of academic progress in one school year. Many get into the area’s top high schools, and they are four times as likely to graduate from college.

College pennants adorn the school walls, helping instill in students the desire and the expectation that higher education is not only within reach but is the natural order of things.

Its motto: Work hard. Be nice.

In St. Louis, KIPP – which stands for the Knowledge Is Power Program – has grown in part through support, financial and otherwise, from a broad range of supporters. Last week, it honored Emerson for its commitment to helping KIPP succeed, and the Regional Business Council announced a $225,000, three-year grant to recruit and retain staff members.

Abu is new to KIPP, but she isn’t new to the atmosphere it creates: high expectations, more instructional time, constant use of data to make sure students are on track. She comes to St. Louis from Houston, where she was involved in a project called Apollo 20, which is a partnership with Harvard University.

Proudly showing off the renovations at her future academy, Abu pointed to new carpeting in the foyer and how the former library has been turned into what she called a teachers’ workshop, a “kid-free zone” where staff members can work together and have a respite from their demanding schedule. The typical library was no longer needed, she explained, because each classroom will have books appropriate to the students who are learning there.

Credit Dale Singer/St. Louis Public Radio
(from left) Kelly Garrett, Richard Barth and Tiara Abu view renovations at the former Mitchell School

“Traditionally,” Abu said, “teachers don’t take care of themselves. They don’t even go to the rest room. This is a place for them to recharge.”

An enclosed courtyard, already being outfitted with playground equipment, will give the students a safe place to play. A cafeteria will use the food service from the city school system, though KIPP will be free to take bids for that service and other services the Victory academy will need.

Between now and when classes begin, Abu will spent part of her time on the home visits all students receive, like her session with the proudly counting Jawon. The evening before Barth’s visit, she said, she got a call from the parent of a prospective kindergarten student at 8 p.m. and set up a home visit for the following week. That kind of personal attention, she said, is a crucial part of KIPP’s success.

“We have to go out and let people know we exist and who we are,” Abu explained.

Startup, not turnaround

Some champions of traditional public schools don’t think too highly of charters, which are funded with tax dollars but operate outside of the standard school district structure. In exchange for such autonomy, they are expected to meet certain standards of achievement.

But Adams has long said that he feels there is room for both traditional schools and charters in an atmosphere of what he and Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis, have called “coop-etition” .

That attitude may face a test soon. Adams has proposed a new classification system for the city schools that would include the possibility of inviting outside operators in to manage poorly performing schools that don’t improve. The plan, which will be voted on by the district’s special administrative board, has met with public criticism from those who say private operators shouldn’t take over public schools. Adams is due to present his final proposal later this month.

At this point, Barth says, KIPP isn’t in the turnaround business. But he praised Adams’ willingness to be innovative and come up with ways to work with outside companies to improve student achievement.

“Do we do the work of going into a school that has five or six grades running and turning that around?” Barth asked. “That’s not what we do. Not that that’s not important work. It is. It’s not what we do at KIPP. But the idea of people trying out new approaches is one I applaud.

“Starting a school from scratch, one or two grades at a time, is the way we do schools at KIPP. I don’t know the details of what Superintendent Adams has announced, but there may be, over time, ways we do fit into that. We want to be part of a larger plan.”

Abu explained the strategy like this:

“When you walk into a building where you are in a turnaround situation, so a school is failing, you come in and you don’t control all the pieces. You have to think about turning around an entire culture," she said.

In contrast, “When you come into a school and you’re a founder of the school, you have the opportunity then to really start fresh and start from the foundation doing it right for families and doing it right for kids. So you pick the books, you pick the chairs, you pick the desks, and you have the opportunity to make sure those are the most impactful," she said.

“When you start from the ground up, while it’s intimidating and it’s crazy at times, it’s exciting to think about we will start with the kids day one, doing it right. And we will start with the kids day one with 100 percent of the people in the building on the same wavelength.”

The key, Barth said, is to be open to new ways of doing things, all in the service of improving education for children who may be struggling. St. Louis, he said, is doing it right.

“In the old model,” he said, “the old days, charter schools would scramble for space, open up a school wherever they could do that, and it wasn’t part of any citywide plan. So the city is trying to figure out what is the future for kids in the city, the district is trying to come up with a plan, and charter schools are scrambling around for facilities. It could be in a strip mall, it could be based in a church. It’s not integrated.

“This is the ideal. This is the right way to go. Over time, in a perfect world, leadership of the city – superintendent, board, mayor, civic leaders – are saying OK, where are kids living, where are we not meeting the needs of kids? How do we meet those needs? And then how do people like KIPP, not just KIPP, how do we fit into that larger picture, rather than be independent of it?”

Garrett, KIPP’s executive director in St. Louis, put it this way:

“We’re not just concerned about our own students. The entire region’s kids are our kids.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.