COLUMN: Charter chain shows results, ambitions

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The preferred term is “promotion ceremony,” for the record. But whatever you do, don’t call what’s about to happen at KIPP TRUTH Academy an “eighth-grade graduation.”

“We reserve the word ‘graduation’ for the end of high school,” said the school’s principal, Steve Colmus. “Finishing eighth grade is a step along the way. But the goal is bigger than that.”

Whatever you call it, members of the first class of eighth-graders are about to, er, complete their stay at the terrific little middle school in South Dallas. They started as fifth-graders when the start-up campus opened in 2003 and celebrated their work last week with a field trip to Washington, D.C.

“It feels good, because some people asked at the time whether we’d still be here in a few years,” Mr. Colmus said. “It’s nice to know we’ve done what we said we’d do.”

But the important thing about these kids isn’t their past. It’s their future. And the same is true of KIPP as a whole.

First, a refresher for those who haven’t heard of KIPP before. It’s a first-rate chain of charter schools that started in Houston in 1994 and has grown to 52 schools in 16 states. In 2003, the first one opened in Dallas, KIPP TRUTH Academy.

(Forgive them their capitalization trespasses.)

KIPP schools are rigorous. Classes last until 5 p.m. There’s a mandatory three-week summer school. There are even – gasp! – classes on some Saturdays. In all, KIPP kids spend about 60 percent more time in class than kids at most schools – and that’s not counting homework.

But they’re not the no-fun places you might imagine from that description. All those extra hours mean there’s more time for field trips, extracurriculars, and art – the things that have been cut from a lot of public schools in the quest for higher test scores.

While Mr. Colmus has no great love for the TAKS his kids have knocked the socks off it. When they took the math TAKS as fifth-graders in 2004, their passing rate was 20 percentage points below the state average.

That wasn’t unexpected, since KIPP’s students are overwhelmingly poor and from some pretty tough neighborhoods.

Flash forward two years. In 2006, that same group of kids had a passing rate 23 percentage points ahead of the state average.

Those kids have been applying to some of the area’s top high schools, and the decisions have come in. Seven are going to schools like Hockaday, Greenhill, and Jesuit – most with full scholarships. Most of the rest are going to elite DISD magnet programs or other well-regarded schools. Two are headed to elite boarding schools in the Northeast.

‘You get a lot out of it’

A few years ago, these were just average Dallas kids. (Check that: They were below-average Dallas kids. Their TAKS scores were below DISD’s as a whole.) And now they’re getting ready to enter some of the best and most rigorous schools Texas and America have to offer.

“It may look tough, all the work,” said eighth-grader Jacob Sarabia, who is headed to Greenhill in the fall. “But you get a lot out of it.”

Devin Chapman is headed to the Middlesex School in Massachusetts. He wants to go to Harvard after that, then become a neurosurgeon. Before he enrolled at KIPP, he didn’t think much about the world outside Dallas. “It’s pretty amazing, when you learn about everything else out there,” he said.

What happens at places like KIPP TRUTH is important, because KIPP is beginning a truly audacious experiment in Houston. Its leaders recently announced a $100 million campaign to expand its presence in the city to 42 schools and 21,000 students – a sort of “shadow district.”

While KIPP’s leaders are too politic to put it this way, it’s a full-on challenge to the Houston school system – and, by extension, the other big urban districts of America. It also confronts the big question that has long nagged KIPP: Can it scale?

Sure, it has created small pockets of excellence in cities across the country. But can it create a big pocket? There have always been suspicions it couldn’t.

Sizable challenges

For instance, KIPP demands a lot of its teachers – much longer hours than traditional public schools. It’s not too tough to find enough of those idealists in a city to staff a school or two. But can you find enough to fill 42?

And how much of KIPP’s success is attributable to really talented principals – an elite subspecies of human that, despite the best efforts of scientists, has proved difficult to clone?

Or to put it another way: Imagine there were 10 KIPP schools in Dallas instead of one. Would there be 10 times as many spots available to their students at the Hockadays and Greenhills than there are today? How much of KIPP’s success is tied up with it being a small exception to the mediocre rule?

Steve Mancini, KIPP’s national spokesman, acknowledges the challenges ahead, but he’s optimistic. “Certainly the hardest challenge we find is finding quality people to teach,” he said. “But the more teachers you have, the more recruiters you have. With more people it becomes a movement.” And KIPP teachers are generally paid 15 to 20 percent more than their colleagues in regular schools.

Check back in a decade and we’ll know some answers. But until then, revel in the small-scale victories.

“Kids who don’t want to change shouldn’t come here,” Devin said.