At a new public high school in Bywater, small groups of neck-tied students gather at round tables to set goals for the week and ultimately for their lives.
Their jocular exchanges don’t yet resemble the lawyers, bankers or administrators that this ritual implies, but they’re learning valuable lessons: cooperation, the power of teamwork and how to carry out long-term goals.
This “round table” ritual, King Arthur’s fabled way of establishing equal status among his knights, symbolizes the high-achieving community spirit that dominates the Knowledge Is Power Program, Renaissance High School’s nonprofit charter operator. KIPP, which now operates seven publicly financed charter schools in New Orleans and 99 schools nationwide, has become an influential player in school reform because the organization consistently delivers miraculous test scores with low-income, mostly minority students who typically enter its schools two or three grades behind where they should be according to their age. Even more impressive, more than 85 percent of the national network’s graduates go on to college.
A single school founded in Houston in 1994 by public school teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin has grown to become a powerhouse network of charter schools that stretches from the East Coast to the West Coast. The network has flourished with the help of generous donors such as Doris and Donald Fischer, founders of Gap stores; the Walton family; Bill and Melinda Gates; and, closer to home, supporters such as New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul. In October 2010, Paul and Chase Bank gave $1 million to launch an after-school program at KIPP Central City Primary School.
KIPP Renaissance and KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy, both opened last year, bring the total New Orleans cluster to seven Recovery School District charters. The network plans to add five more by 2014, bringing its New Orleans presence to 12 schools, which will accommodate 5,300 students or about 13 percent of New Orleans’ public school population. Other New Orleans campuses are: McDonogh 15 Middle School, McDonogh 15 Elementary, Believe College Prep, Central City Academy and Central City Primary.
KIPP is just one of the successful charter school management operators to set up clusters of schools in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina; but to some, KIPP schools have proven to be the bellwether in the city’s academic recovery.
“I liken KIPP to the anchor tenant in a shopping mall,” says Leslie Jacobs, a former board member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “They help attract talent to New Orleans.”
An example of that talent is Brian Dassler, KIPP Renaissance’s “school leader.” A former Florida Teacher of the Year, Dassler underwent KIPP’s vigorous leadership training before being given the opportunity to choose between two school sites, one in New Orleans and one in Houston. Dassler discounted New Orleans at first, but soon changed his mind. “I visited and fell in love,” he says.
He visited the city for less than 24 hours, but he says that he was so sure that New Orleans was his destination that he’d texted friends and family of his decision before arriving at the airport to depart.
Last fall, Dassler opened Renaissance, KIPP’s first New Orleans high school. The school operates in the 71-year-old Art Deco building that once housed Frederick A. Douglass High School. Located on St. Claude Avenue, the state turned over the building to KIPP after it closed Douglass because of rock-bottom test scores and graduation rates. Douglass ranked at the bottom of Recovery District-run high schools – none of which are considered academically acceptable by state standards.
Douglass was among the first schools the RSD closed to make way for proven charter performers. When the state took over most of New Orleans’ schools after Katrina – because they were “academically unacceptable” – and put them in the state operated RSD, officials said schools that showed no improvement after a few years would be replaced with new schools.
The state’s main objective when it established the RSD was to bring quality education to all New Orleans children, and in its own way it has adopted one of KIPP’s mottos: no excuses. Dassler, well-versed in KIPP’s drive to excellence, fully expects his students to achieve a 90 percent pass rate on LEAP student performance tests next spring, even though 40 percent of the incoming class came from non-KIPP schools and many of them have serious reading problems.
Pointing to a sheet of stated goals that includes a 90 percent graduation rate by 2014, he says that if he doesn’t achieve that rate he “should be fired.” But he says he isn’t worried, and there’s no reason why he should be.
KIPP schools that have preceded Renaissance in New Orleans have all attained similar goals within a few years. They rank at high levels of student performance even though they’re open-enrollment schools. Most of New Orleans’ high performing schools, such as Benjamin Franklin High School, have admission standards that limit admittance to only the city’s most talented students.
Some KIPP schools are beginning to rival top-echelon schools with a much different demographic. KIPP figures show that 94 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch and 10 percent receive special education services. Selective admission schools mostly educate students from high-income families. Students from higher-income families have an advantage over students brought up in lower-income families because their typically well-educated parents pass on their knowledge to their children on a daily basis.
Last year, KIPP students not only outperformed other RSD students on average in all areas of LEAP tests, but they also scored higher than the state average in seventh and eighth grade English, math, social studies and science – in some categories as much as 20 percent. These results bring KIPP schools a flood of applicants each year, more than the schools can take. When there are more applicants than seats, schools hold a lottery to identify new students.
All successful charters, including KIPP schools, attract early applicants, leading critics to charge that their higher test scores are the result of more motivated parents. There may be some truth to this argument, but in KIPP’s case, student performance scores compared to statewide figures seem to show that, overall, its schools are doing a better job than traditional schools with low-income students.
Known for strict discipline and an intense focus on college as a life goal, students entering a KIPP primary school as first graders in 2010 know they’re part of the college Class of 2026 even before they know their multiplication tables. By high school, few expect less.
Glenn Sylvan, a KIPP Renaissance ninth grader who finished eighth grade at Wicker Elementary School on Bienville Street, says Renaissance is “awesome. It’s very focused on results,” Sylvan says while eating oatmeal with his round table mates. “You’re always working. Failure isn’t an option.”
Sylvan’s extended hand demonstrates another aspect of KIPP culture that’s an important element in KIPP’s success.
Believing that student success goes beyond academic instruction, KIPP includes socialization skills in its program.
Teachers instruct students to greet people appropriately and to make eye contact. When a teacher speaks, for example, students are expected to look at the speaker and show understanding with appropriate nods. These practices encourage social engagement and assist in the learning process by improving focus and bringing the shy, fearful and rebellious into the fold.
Another KIPP practice is finger-snapping to show support for the achievements of others. The finger-snapping takes the place of applause and is heard throughout a KIPP school day, both for school milestones and individual student achievement.
KIPP often relies on the energy of young idealists to get the job done. Its teachers and school leaders work from 7:30 a.m. until at least 5 p.m. each day and several Saturdays. Teachers are available by phone after hours for students who need help. Many teachers come straight out of college or are Teach for America recruits from some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
KIPP’s strict rules for classroom behavior are evident at KIPP McDonogh 15 Elementary, located in the French Quarter. Talking in the halls or to each other in class is strictly prohibited, and violations bring punishments of exile and silence during lunch breaks, detention instead of recreation periods and demerits that can add up to other punishments.
But the almost-militant style of discipline is offset by play periods and the readiness of teachers to lend a guiding hand. The bonding gives students a sense of community that’s central to the KIPP experience from the top down.
This caring approach also has been noted by others.
Pat Cooper, president of the Early Childhood and Family Learning Foundation, which coordinates health services for children in Central City, says that KIPP Central City allows the foundation to take time from instruction to screen students for physical and mental problems. Students who need services are linked with participating health providers, Cooper says. KIPP has also taken on the responsibility to track their children’s medical appointments, he says.
“It’s a fairly rigorous program,” Cooper says, “but KIPP has recognized its importance. Kids must be healthy to receive the wonderful academic instruction they do.”
KIPP schools that have preceded Renaissance in New Orleans have all attained similar goals within a few years.
They rank at high levels of student performance even though they’re open-enrollment schools. Most of New Orleans’ high performing schools, such as Benjamin Franklin High School, have admission standards that limit admittance to only the city’s most talented students.