Mary Jefferson became the legal guardian of her granddaughter when the child was 2 years old to save her from a life of instability after her parents became addicted to drugs and ended up in jail.
A decade later, Sonya Moss is excelling as a student at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter that is one of the highest-performing middle schools in Baltimore and the state. Jefferson credits the school's structure and support for helping the seventh-grader overcome her childhood obstacles and described KIPP "as a gift from God."
But the rare educational opportunities Sonya and other low-income students receive at the Northwest Baltimore school could come to an end this summer. The school says it will close June 30 if it cannot reach a long-term deal with the Baltimore Teachers Union over pay or garner enough support for legislation in Annapolis that would allow teachers to set their own working conditions.
KIPP's model requires a longer-than-typical 9 1/2-hour school day, which has caused tensions with the union, in order to achieve its results: some of the highest test scores in the state and a 100 percent college-acceptance rate.
"I feel like they came along to help me with my girl, and now she's not lost anymore," Jefferson said. "She just can't go backward. And if this happens, she will just be lost."
KIPP is part of a nationwide network of highly successful charter schools whose mission is to provide a stringent and structured urban education. KIPP, which opened the first of its two schools in Baltimore in 2002, says it has been hampered by sharing a building with various schools and recently operating on a one-year agreement with the union about how to pay its teachers.
Unlike many of its counterparts around the nation, Baltimore's KIPP schools are bound by the teachers union contract regarding pay, which has earned the state criticism for having a restrictive charter school law. Therefore, KIPP has had to compensate teachers for the extended days — a demand that the school says is costing an additional $400,000 to $500,000 a year.
KIPP is also negotiating with the school system in hopes of getting a long-term lease for the building Ujima now occupies. It is willing to take on debt to fix up the building, which is in poor condition, but only if it can get a long-term agreement.
Without a commitment from the school district, each year will remain as uncertain as the last, said Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore.
"To be in this position every year, and to have to say to parents and students that we might not be here is hard," Botel said. "We cannot finance and fundraise if we have a one-year lease on life — if every year, we're at the risk of shutting down."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the union is willing to negotiate with KIPP, as it does with several charter schools in Baltimore that want to implement individual models that may conflict with the union's contract.
"What we have is the most innovative contract in the country — and we're expecting student achievement to rise in all of our schools, and I would hope KIPP is going to be a part of that," English said. "But, at the same token — I think it's unfair to expect teachers to work a 91/2-hour day and not pay them for that time."
The school put the district on notice last winter that it would leave Baltimore if a long-term agreement could not be reached. KIPP had threatened to pull out of the district last year when the school and the union were at odds over the union's contract. The two parties then agreed that KIPP teachers would receive 20.5 percent more in pay — making them among the highest-paid teachers in the district. That agreement ends June 30.
The school needs a more cost-effective solution, Botel said. "We stretch the money as far as we can, but we still get the same amount of funding from the city and state as everyone else," he said.
So, this year KIPP is seeking relief in Annapolis, where a bill hearing is scheduled for March 9 that would allow charter school faculty to vote on their working conditions, including their pay for the extended hours.
English pointed out that the proposed legislation would allow 80 percent of teachers in the school to vote on their working conditions, the same stipulation outlined in the recently ratified teachers union contract. However, voting on pay is excluded.
"This legislation just attempts to circumvent our contract," English said. "I would hope that they wouldn't go to the legislature to negotiate for them."
KIPP teachers are hopeful that their operator and union leaders — who are working on their behalf — will ultimately come to a conclusion that is in the best interest of the students.
"I work very hard through the long days, the extended years, to provide stability to my students," said Yasmene Mumby, who has taught at KIPP Ujima for three years and supports the longer school day. "As a teacher, you strive to maintain your commitment to the kids."
"To think that at June 30, my commitment to my students could be in jeopardy — it's unsettling," she said.
The legislation to help KIPP is being co-sponsored by Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg and Sen. Catherine Pugh, both Baltimore Democrats. Rosenberg said that he has visited the school, which is in his district and home neighborhood, and believes that its departure would be devastating. While the bill is directed at KIPP's problems, he said, it is also being proposed for other charters that feel restricted by collective bargaining agreements.
"For those kids and their parents who are prospering in the KIPP environment, it's a tremendous setback," Rosenberg said. "It would also be sending a message around the country that KIPP wanted to be here and couldn't do it, because they couldn't implement their model."
David Borinsky, president of the Maryland Charter School Network, said that there is no reason that charter schools in Maryland can't operate with union teachers.
Because Maryland is rated No.1 by Education Week, he said, "it would be an embarrassment if something happened that drove such a celebrated operator out of the state."
City and state leaders said a resolution can be reached if the union and KIPP work together. City schools CEO Andrés Alonso said KIPP leaving would be a "travesty" for the district where parents have sought out charter schools with unique models.
"This is a model that parents want," Alonso said. "But what I ultimately hope is that both parties work together for a solution like they did a year ago."
Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the governor is a supporter of the charter, and "obviously, it's his hope that all sides can come together to work out what differences exist and keep the school in Baltimore."
The Knowledge Is Power Program was started by two Teach for America teachers in Houston in 1994 and has grown to 99 schools in 20 states. KIPP Baltimore opened the Ujima Village Academy in 2002; the school currently serves 370 fifth- through eighth-graders.
Eighth-grader Sharayna Phipps said "you get used to" the long days, "once you realize you get more instruction and get ahead of everyone else."
In 2009, KIPP opened an elementary school, KIPP Harmony Academy, also in Northwest Baltimore. The school currently serves 250 students in kindergarten and first grade, and had plans to expand to serve 600 students through grade four. Nearly 86 percent of KIPP Harmony's first class finished kindergarten reading above grade level, according to Botel.
Phipps, who has younger family members at KIPP Harmony, said she feels the opportunity she had will be cut short for them if KIPP leaves the city.
"Generations to come in Baltimore won't get the real experience of learning," she said.
On state assessments, KIPP Ujima goes neck and neck with Empowerment Academy for the best overall scores of any middle school in the city. KIPP's math scores are above those of Roland Park Middle School, which has a science and math magnet curriculum. And its scores are above the state average in math and reading.
Neither the city nor state school board have taken a position on the conflict. But the city school board policy states that all charters have to adhere to union contracts. And at least one state school board member, Kate Walsh, said she would have liked the state board to support the proposed legislation.
"When we allow KIPP to leave we are putting adult interests ahead of kids' interests," Walsh said.
Sonya Moss, accompanied by her grandmother, will share her story with lawmakers in Annapolis on March 9.
Among the concerns she'll talk about are staying connected to the teachers and classmates that have become like extended family.
She'll also don her black KIPP polo shirt, which she will explain she had to earn by completing a full, successful year of academic success and social responsibility.
She will tell them that next year she will be in eighth grade, when she is due to earn her spot on the "golden ticket" walls lining KIPP hallways that showcase the prestigious, college-preparatory high schools KIPP students move on to.
"Losing KIPP would be like losing my home — losing everyone who cares about me," Sonya said. "I'm just going to tell them that it gives you an opportunity you wouldn't be able to get anyplace else."