City charter school shines

The Baltimore Sun

A small charter school serving poor children in Northwest Baltimore has transformed students' academic careers, turning low-performers into some of the city's highest scorers on reading and math tests, while their peers in neighboring schools have continued to lag behind, according to a new study.

Of students who started at KIPP Ujima Village Academy in fifth grade in 2002 and stayed for four years, 100 percent passed the state's eighth-grade math test, compared with 19 percent in the control group, a Johns Hopkins University education researcher found.

But translating the methods and successes of KIPP to other middle schools in the city probably would be challenging and costly, lead author Martha Mac Iver concluded.

"Having a small learning environment, with less chaos, with more time on task, with more highly qualified teachers, is the issue," Mac Iver said. "How do you deliver that to as many students as possible?"

Five years after the school opened, it has become a star among city schools. KIPP Ujima had scores on this year's Maryland State Assessments that were the highest of any city middle school, surpassing even high-performing Roland Park, and were among the top 50 in the state, according to an analysis by The Sun.

KIPP Ujima is part of a loosely connected group of Knowledge Is Power Program schools that have generally been able to break the cycle of poor achievement in urban schools across the country, apparently by demanding a lot from students and giving them extra time for learning after school, on Saturdays and during August.

There are more than 50 KIPP schools in 16 states. A two-year-old KIPP school in Anne Arundel County announced last week that it is closing after struggling to find a big enough building.

In Baltimore, skeptics have continually questioned whether KIPP's results were skewed in some way. Was the school skimming the best students from public schools in surrounding neighborhoods? Did KIPP take students from households with higher incomes? And what about the fairly high number of students who left the school?

The study, commissioned by the Abell Foundation, attempted to answer some of those questions. As a privately run charter school, KIPP is publicly funded but receives additional funding, some of it from Abell.

"KIPP appears to be a tremendous success in educating students in the grades that the school system is having the most trouble," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation.

Mac Iver, a researcher at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, compared the achievement and economic status of KIPP students in four grades with a group of similar students at the four elementary schools that KIPP students transferred from. The school serves students in grades five through eight.

The study found that KIPP student achievement was drastically higher, particularly in math, though in fifth grade, students did better in math but not in reading. Each year, the gap between the KIPP students and those in the regular public schools widened.

Students who spent even one or two years at KIPP and then left for other middle schools continued to do better than the students who hadn't been to KIPP, indicating that the training they received stayed with them.

In general, the KIPP students were not from wealthier homes; neither did they have higher test scores in fourth grade before leaving their elementary schools to go to KIPP. Their attendance also was about the same as those in the control group.

The study did not attempt to quantify any differences in parental support or the parents' educational backgrounds.

Mac Iver did find a "not trivial" amount of attrition from the school. Of the first class of 84 students entering fifth grade in 2002, only 49 finished eighth grade at KIPP four years later. Some students had been held back a year, and many others had left the school.

The reasons they left were not documented in the study, though Mac Iver said they tended to have lower test scores than those who stayed.

"The kids who are leaving are the lower-achieving kids who are having the more significant struggle," said Jeanine Hildreth, a program evaluator for the Baltimore school system. But that does not diminish the school's achievement, she said.

KIPP's Baltimore leader, Jason Botel, notes that in most cases, the attrition rate at KIPP was no worse than at most city middle schools. And Mac Iver found that it was not very different, in most instances, from the other charter schools in the city.

KIPP was started in Houston by two Teach for America teachers, and the network of schools now serves 12,000 children. Nearly 80 percent of KIPP alumni go on to college.

The schools have a longer school day and school year, a behavior code and strict discipline that includes punishment for students who fail to turn in homework. Their teachers, who are part of the teachers union, are hand-picked by principals and are paid slightly more than regular public school teachers for the extra hours they work.

Teachers are given cell phones, which they keep on until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. so that students can call with questions about homework.

The question among some city educators has been: Could we have more KIPP schools in the city, and could pieces of the KIPP model be adopted by other schools?

Botel said KIPP plans to open another school in a year in East Baltimore. A new principal will soon begin training to open it. The KIPP national organization is evaluating whether Baltimore would be a good place for a cluster of the schools, opened one at a time over the next few years.

"We have started a planning process ... to look at what pace we should grow and what things we need in place to build a cluster of high-performing schools," Botel said.

Embry said he does not believe the school model would appeal to the families of all middle school students, but it could be expanded in Baltimore.

But Hildreth and others doubt how far it could be spread, in part because of the costs.

"To take the whole KIPP model and transfer it citywide, I don't think is possible. It is way too expensive and demanding," Hildreth said. Probably not every middle school teacher, she said, would want to commit to days that begin very early and might not end until 9 p.m.

In her conclusion, Mac Iver said the conversion to small schools that the city system is making might help change the culture in schools, but the "primary challenge is to find ways to ensure high-quality instruction in every classroom, every day."

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