First Person

How KIPP learned the truth about its students’ college completion and inspired others to do the same

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
KIPP co-founder Dave Levin

Over the last several years, many well known networks of charter schools have expanded their challenge. Getting poor students to college isn’t enough, they realized — those students need a lot of support if they are to graduate, too. 

Back in 2011, KIPP came to this realization more publicly than most. Author and charter-school fan Richard Whitmire explains what happened in this excerpt from his new book, “The Founders.”

Most people think the story of KIPP charter schools is a story about two guys in Houston, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, launching a network of high-performing charter schools that today includes 183 schools educating 70,000 students. They’re right; it’s a great story, one told well in Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

I won’t retell that story here. Instead, I will argue that KIPP’s other story, its research, is every bit as influential as the charter network itself. That research is thorough and unsparing and has affected nearly every school in America, traditional and charter. I will focus on a single piece of research, the College Completion Report, one that proved somewhat unflattering to KIPP in the short run but also one that continues to have positive long-term benefits for both KIPP and other charter networks in increasing overall college completion rates.

The College Completion Report was unveiled in late April 2011 and hit with a very hard thud — and not just in KIPP-world. There was some promising news: 31 percent of early-generation KIPP middle school students graduated from (four-year) colleges within six years, which at that point in time was three times the graduation rate for low-income, minority students nationally.

The problem was that the graduation rate fell far short of what high-achieving charters like KIPP thought they could accomplish (and predicted they would achieve), which is closer to 75 percent. The headline written by Jay Mathews when he wrote about the report in The Washington Post: “KIPP criticizes its college graduation record.”

At the time the report came out, KIPP was already well on its way to reshaping its approach for making sure its graduates not only got into college but also graduated from college. That’s an interesting story I’ll tell shortly. But the significance of the report went well beyond KIPP’s internal changes.

In this report, KIPP threw down three data gauntlets and dared others to follow. First, KIPP reported its college completion statistics by tracking students all the way from eighth grade. Traditionally, schools just tracked from the senior year, conveniently ignoring all the students who dropped out between eighth and 12th grades. Better public relations, of course, but what about all those dropouts? If your program succeeded only by losing the less successful kids, then was your program truly successful?

Second, KIPP reported its college statistics based on which students actually graduated. Still today, scores of schools report only the percent accepted to college. Sure, the latter strategy makes you look better, but how honest is that? If you get your students accepted but don’t prepare them to succeed in college, then is your program truly successful? I can only imagine the gasps and red faces around the country when charter school boards met to discuss their “100 percent accepted” claims: Should we really be doing this without saying how many actually make it through college to earn a degree? Seeing schools issue those 100 percent claims “drives me crazy,” KIPP CEO Richard Barth told me. And it should.

Third, KIPP made all its findings public. Considering that KIPP’s college track record fell short, that was pretty brave. They could have kept it quiet. But as Barth puts it, you shouldn’t maintain two stories — a blunt story for internal consumption and a cheery one for the general public. Will others be brave enough to make their internal studies public?

And, given that KIPP was first out of the blocks with full disclosure, the next question was: What’s KIPP going to do about it?

The two-part solution called for next-generation learning which focuses on students directing their own learning (thus developing grit) and bringing intense support networks to college campuses, thus giving poor kids the kind of backing that middle-class college students take for granted. KIPP’s “character counts” program — a chart I’ve seen posted outside KIPP classrooms — is just one example. Teachers are reminded of the seven “strengths” that need development along with math and reading skills: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

Perhaps the most dramatic change KIPP made as a result of that research is its College Match program. A big factor in why some KIPP students earned a degree and others didn’t was the college they chose. “We began to realize that where you go to college really matters,” said Barth. “Like, it is absolutely life-changing. We were watching what happened to our 12th-graders when they went to college, and we learned that at each level of selectivity — competitive, highly competitive — some colleges are better at graduating first-generation college-goers than others.”

The result: a network of about 80 colleges that want to work with KIPP. The next task was to make sure KIPP graduates found their way to those KIPP-friendly places. The answer: intense guidance. Three years ago, only about one in 10 KIPP graduates enrolled at the best colleges for them; today, it is about one in four. That’s a rapid change. The colleges that are good for KIPP students run the full gamut of selectivity. In 2016 KIPP had about 40 students at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, home to the “grit” researchers. An additional 35 attended Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

“What are these folks doing?” asks Barth. “First they are looking at our KIPPsters and seeing immense potential. Second, they’re looking into the world of these students and seeing how they can optimize their financial packages so the students can cover what is needed and not end up with extreme levels of personal debt. Three, these are campuses where our kids are socializing, where they can be involved in campus activities.”

Barth credits F&M president Daniel Porterfield with making what he describes as “potentially third-rail” decisions to make his college more welcoming to first-generation students. “He has made the case with his board that in doing this, the student body will be higher-performing; there will be more fellowships, more Fulbright winners. That’s a remarkable example of what can be done. We’re looking for other partners who have that level of commitment.”

What KIPP learned in getting poor and minority students into colleges that succeed with first-generation students was quickly passed along to both charters and traditional districts. In Arkansas’s Delta, for example, a place where students almost never made it to the University of Arkansas, a KIPP collaboration with counselors at local schools there changed that pattern.

Amy Charpentier, the director for KIPP Through College at KIPP Delta, supervises two college counselors at Central High and one counselor at Lee High, whose positions are funded through a grant KIPP Delta received from the Walton Family Foundation. The results to date: Last year, the partnership more than doubled the four-year college-going rates for seniors at Central High School and increased the four-year college-going rates by nearly half for seniors at Lee High School.

Relations between charters and district schools are always delicate, but in this case the principals and superintendents agreed their students weren’t getting the college guidance they deserved and agreed to the KIPP counselors coming to their schools, said Charpentier.

Barth said he just got a similar collaboration request from the superintendent of Philadelphia’s schools. “There’s nothing we’re doing with counseling that’s proprietary,” said Barth, who said he was open to more collaborations. “We’re at a place where it’s sharable, and the more first-generation kids who can get this kind of guidance, the better.”

Adapted from “The Founders,” published by The 74 Million, an education news and opinion website whose founders support charter schools.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.