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

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk