Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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KIPP Academy Houston

Location Houston, Texas
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1994
Grades 5-8
Enrollment 346
English Learners 8%
Subsidized Meals 86%
Special Needs 5%
Per Pupil Spending $8,670

At KIPP Academy Houston, daily chants ring out through the school: All of us will learn. Read, Baby, Read. Hallway banners proclaim The path to success is education. Work Hard. Be Nice. Every teacher and school leader at KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, is on a mission to level the playing field for students who live in neighborhoods troubled by illiteracy, drug abuse, broken homes, gangs, and juvenile crime. KIPP's mission is to "help our students develop academic skills, intellectual habits and qualities of character necessary to succeed in high school, college and the competitive world beyond." Serving predominantly low-income, minority students in grades 5-8, KIPP has forged an academic culture of high expectations, charged with the conviction that every child will learn. The key to this top-performing school is its unrelenting focus on results: teachers and administrators will do whatever it takes to help students learn, which includes being on call via cell phone for homework help at all hours. Everyone in the school is expected to live by its credo: "There are no shortcuts. Success is built through desire, discipline and dedication. The path to success is education."

KIPP Academy Houston is the flagship among the 31 KIPP schools now operating in the United States. It was started in 1994 by two Teach For America teachers, Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg, who recognized that to bridge the academic achievement gap, students needed more time and lots of hard work. Their first agenda was to broaden the concept of a school day to one in which every student worked hard academically from 7:25 in the morning until 5:00 at night. Then, as current principal Elliott Witney explains, "We focus on the pieces students are missing and work to catch them up and prepare them for college. We want disciplined thinkers, in a society where thinking doesn't always get rewarded. And a big key to success here is that we want our kids to believe they have choices in life-that their future is not determined by their past or their status in society or their economic reality or their skin color or for whatever reason-success is defined by the choices they make."

When KIPP Academy began, it was a contract school in the Houston district. The program was immediately successful and co-founder Levin left at the behest of the New York Public Schools to start a KIPP school there. Meanwhile, Feinberg continued to run the Houston campus. By 1998, the district had moved the school five times, so Feinberg applied for and received a charter from the state. In 2000, with a $7 million capital campaign, KIPP Academy Houston moved to its present 37-acre campus and built a multipurpose space for the new middle school.

Of KIPP Academy Houston's 346 students, who are chosen by lottery, 77 percent are Hispanic, 21 percent are African American, and the remaining 2 percent are Asian American and white; 8 percent of KIPP students are English language learners; 5 percent receive special education services; and 86 percent qualify for subsidized meals.

Program and Operations

A standout feature at KIPP Houston is its academic work ethic and how its chartered freedom is used to extend student learning time. The school day is considerably longer than most workdays and the schedule includes two mandatory Saturdays each month, plus summer sessions. The school year begins in June with a three-week kick-off and then school resumes six weeks later in August for the rest of the school year. The summer component for incoming fifth-graders focuses on creating the school culture-making sure students understand the strict code of conduct and learn the chants, songs, and systems that will carry them through the school year. For the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders, the focus is strictly academic.

Every teacher and school leader is on a mission to level the playing field for students who live in neighborhoods troubled by illiteracy, drug abuse, broken homes, gangs, and juvenile crime.

Students travel as a class from one subject to the next, working as a team in their 80-minute core classes: language arts, history, science, and math. They also take 45-minute classes, including physical education, art, music, and Spanish. Students eat lunch with their entire grade in the cafeteria, as teachers conduct informal meetings. With 90 students per grade, there are three sections of 30 students each. Teachers are able to handle such large classes because the students are on task and well behaved.

Consequences for misbehavior or not completing homework are serious. Discipline is summed up in the slogan, "If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the Porch." Students who misbehave are "put on the Porch" and are prohibited from socially interacting with anyone except adults, are required to wear their uniform shirts inside out, and must work their way off the Porch through a combination of good behavior, community service, apologies, and goal-setting. Incomplete homework sends students to "Wall Street," the after-school homework center, where they stay until they finish, even if it takes until 8:30 at night. KIPP also uses a schoolwide incentive program, a weekly "paycheck" that rewards good citizenship and good deeds with "KIPP dollars" to purchase items at the school store. Paychecks can also be docked for bad behavior.

The academic focus at KIPP is on making sure that students "know what they need to know," says founder Mike Feinberg. "It is not a race," he adds. This attention to mastery and academic engagement is evident in a visit to a fifth-grade English class. Students conduct themselves in an academic discussion the way college students might engage with a text. Not needing to raise hands, but instead politely waiting to comment on the contributions of the last person, students offer remarkably mature and thoughtful responses. They hold the classwide discussion among themselves rather than always addressing the teacher. Pointing to particular examples in the book Night John by Gary Paulsen, students support their ideas with evidence, whether to make a point or to respectfully disagree. The tone is supportive rather than competitive. After 20 minutes of student discussion, the teacher compliments his students and models the use of supporting detail: "Your ideas are beautiful. I liked the way you grabbed someone else's idea and then extended it." At other points in the lesson, the focus was on grammar, with students learning hand cues to figure out the predicate and the nominative cases in a sentence. In KIPP classrooms, whether students are learning grammar, discussing a novel, singing their math facts, or chanting state capitals, the pace is fast and full of engaging instruction and learning.

KIPP does not track students; everyone takes the accelerated high school preparatory curriculum. The extra hours devoted to instruction and academic learning make it possible for all students to handle more rigorous academics. However, when students are new to KIPP, there is often a steep learning curve as they fill in the gaps and holes in their knowledge.

Continuous Learning

KIPP's first priority in maintaining its demanding program has been to recruit and train outstanding teachers committed to raising achievement for underserved kids. Most KIPP teachers are young and all work long hours. "We hire stallions," says Principal Witney, "give them the race track, and let them run."

Teachers from different grade levels are grouped in teams of four by department. As a team they videotape each other conducting lessons, give feedback, and help to develop a plan of action after viewing the videotape. This is a powerful learning tool for teachers to develop their teaching. Once a month, students have a half-day schedule and teachers convene for a staff meeting and curriculum development. Learning inquiry groups are another form of professional development at KIPP, one that is new enough to be considered a work in progress. Extra support is available to beginning teachers. The school's lead mentor teacher observes new teachers two to three times each week, writes comments, meets with them during their prep periods to provide feedback, and helps with curriculum and lesson planning.

Student learning is assessed in multiple ways, including weekly progress reports to parents, six-week report cards, student writing portfolios, unit tests, projects, and standardized tests. KIPP also considers other measures as valuable indicators of student progress towards achieving their mission, such as number of books read, attendance, and high school and college placement.

Parents and Partners

Parent involvement starts from the first orientation presentations. Entering students, their parents, and their teachers all sign the KIPP Commitment to Excellence Form, their agreement emphasizing a culture of shared expectations. These include making a commitment to the extended school hours, Saturday school and summer school, the school dress code and conduct code, and homework. If parents need help managing their commitments, staff are ready to help. One mother whose son consistently skipped his homework explained to the principal that she could not control the boy's TV viewing. "Would it help for you to bring in the TV?" Witney offered. "And she nearly fell out of the chair. It's sitting here on my floor until her son earns it back."

"We focus on the pieces students are missing and work to catch them up and prepare them for college."

Parents are involved at KIPP in a myriad of ways: chaperoning end-of-the-year school trips such as visits to boarding schools and high schools across the country, supervising Saturday school, coaching sports, working in the office, serving on the board of directors, supporting students to focus on getting their work done, and providing transportation after school. One parent works in the office and helps other parents to communicate with teachers and administrators in Spanish. Parents serve food in the cafeteria, supervise Wall Street after school, and run fundraisers for the school. Bus transportation is provided to and from school, but parents often pick students up from the extended-day homework center and activities. Surveys find that parents are enthusiastic about the KIPP program and confident that it is making a difference for their children.

Governance and Accountability

KIPP, Inc., holds the charter for KIPP Academy Houston as well as for three other schools in Texas. The 19-member board of directors of KIPP, Inc., oversees the principals of each Texas campus and makes sure each campus adheres to the charter goals and Texas Education Code guidelines. The board also supports each campus for additional fundraising and marketing and holds each principal accountable for his or her school's academic and fiscal performance. Board members include CEOs, accountants, lawyers, educators, a doctor, community volunteers, and one parent.

KIPP Academy Houston operates on an annual budget of about $3 million. The school typically raises about $500,000 a year beyond the $7,400 per pupil provided by state and federal funding. Principal Witney points out that this is about $2,200 per pupil less than in the Houston district. "Even with our fundraising," he says, "we're streamlined. We don't waste money on administrative people. We have to pay for facilities, we have a program for alumni, we pay for out-of-state field trips. And the Saturday school teacher and I pick up the trash."

Everyone in the school is expected to live by its credo: "There are no shortcuts."

KIPP Academy Houston measures its success with a 99 percent attendance rate, a waiting list larger than its total enrollment, outstanding standardized test scores, and eighth-grade students who have accepted $13.5 million in high school scholarships over the past five years. KIPP Academy Houston has been recognized as a Texas Exemplary School every year since 1996, and, in 2003, was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Forbes, and other media have lauded KIPP's remarkable results, and KIPP is widely considered one of the most promising initiatives in public education today. With the backing of the Pisces Foundation, the KIPP national office trains future school leaders to create KIPP schools across the country.

KIPP Academy Houston will soon embark on a $15 million capital campaign for facilities and an endowment to expand their program so that a child can enter in preschool and continue through high school.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009