Big changes in the key charter school network go unnoticed in the prevailing debate



Our national debate on public charter schools lacks nuance and depth. Opponents say the charters are leeches sucking money from regular public schools that are already struggling. Supporters say charters are innovators who give kids better lessons while fighting bad district bureaucrats who try to overpower them.

When you talk to educators who actually run charter schools, this debate seems far from reality. During a long conversation with KIPP DC Executive Director Susan Schaeffler, the city’s most successful leader, I learned of significant changes in her network, sparked by intense competition for teachers as the dominant debate never mentions.

When I met Schaeffler in the basement of a church in Southeast Washington 16 years ago while she was assembling classroom furniture with her father’s help, I was surprised to learn that the fifth grade KIPP course she was starting would start at 7.45 a.m. and not end until 5 p.m. This was almost three hours longer than the standard school day in the district and most from the country. Could it work?

It made. With Saturday classes, weeklong field trips, and compulsory summer courses, the extra time coupled with careful selection and training of creative teachers has produced the highest college success rates in the world. town, although almost all of KIPP’s students come from low-income families. KIPP DC now has five early childhood schools, five primary schools, five middle schools and one high school for a total of nearly 5,800 students. KIPP has 200 non-profit charter schools nationwide.

Many people still think of long days when they hear the name KIPP, but the nature of that extra time has changed at KIPP DC. Saturday classes have been moved from middle schools to elementary schools. The July summer school was moved to August, just before the start of the regular school year. And the college day was reduced by one hour, from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Schaeffler, who started out as a teacher in Baltimore and DC public schools, is in conflict with the change. “It’s one of the things we’re struggling with now,” she said. The classroom talent market is very competitive in the district. She didn’t want to lose good teachers to schools that offered a shorter working day, no Saturday classes, and no compulsory homework in the middle of the summer. “It was difficult because I felt for the first time that I was making a decision based on adults and not children,” she said.

The growth of its network made up for lost time in a way that was not possible when KIPP DC only had three colleges. New fifth-graders then needed a three-week summer session just to get used to the demands that include attendance, attention in class, substantial homework, and no teasing or bullying from other students. Nowadays, most students start KIPP well before the fifth grade. They don’t need a big adjustment from the less demanding schedules of regular public schools. Eighty-two percent of freshmen entering KIPP College Prep, the network’s high school, come from KIPP colleges.

To facilitate a long summer break that can cause learning loss for low-income urban children, KIPP DC wants its students to attend high quality summer camps. Plus, with established rules and routines in place, there is more time to learn. KIPP teachers keep checking with each other about what’s going on in their classrooms, like undergraduates in a good little college.

The experience with high school students also led the system to adjust its college rules, such as walking leisurely from class to class online. The high school principal wanted his students to feel comfortable going to their lockers and chatting in the hallway. Colleges have therefore adopted a more flexible approach with seventh and eighth graders.

This is just the start of KIPP adjustments. In the next few columns, I’ll reveal more, including an innovative way to train teachers that most schools I know wish they could adopt.



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