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How KIPP Schools Define Success

Today, Elliott Witney, formerly a leader in a KIPP charter school, begins blogging with Deborah Meier.

Dear Deb,
Witney_Blog Head (2).jpg
I feel incredibly grateful to be able to join you in this public discussion. I remember vividly the moments when Emily Gasoi reflected aloud how surprised she was to find such similarity between the schools you work with and the KIPP school she studied for her dissertation.

Before I respond in detail to your post, I wanted to clarify that I no longer work full-time for KIPP. I currently serve as an administrator for the Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston. Before coming to Spring Branch, I worked for KIPP starting in 1999—first as a teacher at the original middle school in Houston, and then later as the principal. I was also the girls' soccer coach for middle and high school for about a dozen years, a job I loved. I continue to teach a course on leadership to aspiring KIPP leaders, which takes me across the country to see an array of KIPP schools in action.

What's been particularly interesting in my transition from charter to traditional is how similar (I'd go so far as to say identical) the work is—in particular, the dreams we have for our children and the problems we're trying to solve. What's cool to me about the education reform space now is that traditional systems and charter organizations throughout the country are finally collaborating in meaningful ways to help more kids. The SKY Partnership between Spring Branch ISD, KIPP, and YES Prep is a wonderful example of organizations with common purpose working together. I hope we can dive into these topics soon.

That said, I wanted to address your request—that I share my thoughts on your perceptions about KIPP—based on my firsthand experience as a KIPP veteran.

The situation you describe simply does not reflect my experience with KIPP. In thousands of hours in dozens of KIPP schools throughout the United States, I can't remember ever hearing anyone in KIPP say "these kinds of kids." Ever. I've heard "our students," "my students," and more often than not, "my kids," because KIPP fosters such a strong "team and family" culture in its schools.

I've also never witnessed schoolwide discipline the way you describe it. In my experience, a healthy KIPP school does not do these things. As a KIPP principal, I made it my mission to ensure that students felt safe, supported, nurtured, and challenged at school. The KIPP schools I've visited take a similar approach. As recently as late March I visited three KIPP charter schools in Memphis, Tenn., and left blown away by the warm, inviting culture in each of their schools.

I think I'm reading in your piece that KIPP is overly focused on test scores. That is absolutely not the case. KIPP defines success by asking Six Essential Questions that test the health and sustainability of our schools and measuring progress against those questions. I have to tell you that although I'd say KIPP is doing well on numerous indicators (including state tests), I've never met a single KIPP leader who's satisfied with that. KIPP's leadership is constantly pushing for more, to do better, and to make sure that students receive a great all-around education, not just at test time.

For example, let's look at Essential Question #4: Are KIPP alumni climbing the mountain to and through college? As of this year, the four-year college graduation rate for KIPP students 25 or older from the first KIPP middle schools—including the one I led—is 40 percent. That's above the national average for all children and four times the national average for students from the bottom economic quartile. In Spring Branch ISD, we see success in places like KIPP and YES with college-completion numbers as something worth learning from and in many ways trying to emulate. But KIPP's co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg are not satisfied with this. They want to achieve a college-completion rate that is on par with the rate for young people 25 or older from high-income families, which is currently around 75 percent.

This idea of "continuous improvement" is part of the DNA at KIPP. Leaders and teachers constantly look for ways to revitalize and hone what they're doing. Because they're not satisfied, KIPP's leaders decided to tackle the problem of increasing college-completion rates by refining their focus on character. Developing character has always been part of the KIPP model, but over the past few years the work has become more deliberate, building on cutting-edge research by professors Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania. In KIPP schools around the country, as a small example of how this research is integrating into the fabric of KIPP schools, I see teachers working collaboratively with students to develop character-based growth goals so that children feel empowered to grow.

Finally, I want to address your question of whether or not KIPP leaders send their children to KIPP. The answer is yes, absolutely, they do. But KIPP's mission is not educating the children of their leaders, but educating the children of their communities. KIPP's #1 Essential Question is, Are we serving the students that need us? With hundreds of families on waiting lists at KIPP schools across the country, the focus is on making progress toward that goal.

Now that I've discussed my experiences and history as an educator, I would love to learn more about your work. I understand that you've made incredible progress building citizenship among students at Mission Hill and Central Park East. You've also written extensively on democracy in schools. What drew you to this approach? How did you implement it, and how has it worked? How have your students drawn on their democracy-oriented education as they move on to college and beyond? I'm certain your groundbreaking work can help all of us—charter or traditional—learn and grow.

My best,
Elliott

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