KIPP hopes to replicate formula for success
To hear Richard Barth tell it, the formula for a successful charter school is simple:
Find great teachers, put them in front of students for a longer day, let everyone know that expectations are high, give them the financial, educational and moral support they need and never stop checking to make sure that things are going as they should.
During an interview at the end of his one-day visit to St. Louis on Tuesday, he talked about the mission of KIPP and charters in general, how all kinds of schools can work together to serve students and why the reaction of some people toward charters is viscerally negative.
“We have one mission – great, great schools for kids,” Barth said. “What we have found in community after community is that what matters is: Are we creating a first-class school, and can we learn from that and get better and open even more great schools? The only reason we ever do what we do is that we are focused on delivering on the promises that we make to our kids.
“I’m not denying that there are people who don’t like us and don’t want us to succeed. But this is hard work. The people who work in our schools ignore the noise out there. They are focused on our kids and getting them ready. They don’t spend time thinking about who loves us and who doesn’t love us. Unless we are going to create something special for our kids, it is not worth spending time on it.”
Even as Barth visited with students, teachers and potential supporters in St. Louis and Jefferson City, lawmakers were weighing whether to expand charter schools beyond their current limits in St. Louis and in Kansas City. Up the street in the capital, members of the state Board of Education were questioning the track record of the Confluence Academy charter in St. Louis and saying it would be evaluated again in a year to make sure it was making progress.
And those discussions were taking place against the backdrop of the nearly 4,000 students who have been attending the Imagine charter schools that were shut down by the state and now have to find other places to enroll this fall.
Being in the forefront of such education changes is nothing new for Barth. Over the past couple of decades he has been involved in some of the most highly visible movements for change – Edison Schools, one of the first for-profit school management companies, and Teach For America, where he was one of the founding staff members and where his wife, Wendy Kopp, is still in charge.
For the KIPP Foundation, Barth works to raise funds for local schools and provide other types of support as well as trying to win federal grants. He knows that, like in St. Louis, charters have had a rough time in many cities, but he also is quick to cite what he considers to be success stories in New York City, New Orleans or the District of Columbia.
“There is always pushing back and forth,” he said, “but there is forward progress overall. There are some states where a number of schools opened in the early going that have not performed, and you have to accept that kind of reality. The question always is: How can we have a higher bar for quality in exchange for the freedom of a charter? Speaking for KIPP, we expect nothing less.
“Missouri may be at the place in the game where the focus has to be on quality, and as you do start gaining support, some folks have reservations.”
Right now, KIPP Inspire in St. Louis has grades 5, 6 and 7, with an eighth grade being added in the fall. The long-range plane envisioned by Barth and by Kelly Garrett, KIPP’s executive director in St. Louis, is five schools – two each in north and south St. Louis that would teach students in kindergarten through eighth grade and a centrally located high school.
Garrett hopes another school or two would open in the fall of 2014. The sponsor for all the schools would be Washington University, which has made KIPP its only entry in the charter school arena.
But, Garrett emphasized, KIPP is taking its time to make sure it grows in the right way, with the leadership it needs. “Growing too fast is a lesson in failure” he said.
In schools, failure or success most often is gauged by test scores. Barth said that in state tests as well as ones used by KIPP schools nationwide, students routinely improve their academic performance, even if they have started at a fairly low level.
“We understand that they come in behind,” he said. “But they will rise above that state threshold – not through magic, but through hard work. We have a higher bar. We want to make sure our students are set up to be successful at college and life.”
To be specific, Barth talked about how well St. Louis students are progressing in math.
“There is a clear understanding that there are no shortcuts to gaining a good trajectory,” he said. “In math, our seventh graders are ready for algebra right now, where in some settings they may not be ready for another 18 months or so. Our expectations are at a much higher level. Our students go to school for a lot more time. We have really high expectations and phenomenal teachers. Great teaching and more of it can really make a difference.”
As far as KIPP’s role in the changing landscape of school options – neighborhood schools, charters, pilots, choice schools, magnets, private, parochial, home schooling and the voluntary transfer program – Barth said he looks at it like this:
“It’s really, really simple. If there are roughly 60,000 kids who live in the city of St. Louis and wake up in the morning and go off to school, how many of those kids wake up and go to a school that will give them a legitimate shot to succeed in a very competitive world? I think the question for everyone who lives here is what is that number, and what do we think that number will be next year, or two yers from now?
“For all of the detractors who believe the number is X or Y, if that number isn’t changing positively year over year, it doesn’t really matter what we are doing, and I mean all of us. If that number is increasing, that’s great. I’m optimistic. All of us collectively have to look at that city report card and ask: How are we all working to change that number?”