KIPP school to open Downtown

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July 7, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Knowledge Is Power Program plans five Minneapolis locations

One of the most buzzed-about public charter school networks in the country will open an outpost Downtown this summer, its first in Minnesota.

Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, has built a reputation on boosting the performance of students from its target population, mainly children of color from low-income families. KIPP Stand Academy, a fifth–eighth-grade middle school, will begin its mandatory summer session Aug. 11 in the Basilica School Building, 1601 Laurel St., with an inaugural fifth-grade class of about 90 students.

The vast majority of those students were recruited from the city’s North Side. That is where Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has seen its largest enrollment declines as families flee to charter schools and inner-ring suburban public schools.

That’s also where KIPP Stand Academy school leader Mike Spangenberg and KIPP Minnesota Executive Director Daisy Mitchell have spent the last several months talking about their new school with just about anybody who would listen.

“I would say 80–90 percent of our kids have been [recruited by] just walking up to someone on the street and telling them about the school,” Spangenberg said.

Added Mitchell: “Once we’ve gotten in the door to talk to a parent, once we’ve actually been in their home and sat down with them, not one person has said no.”

One of those parents was Sonia Catchings-Meyers, who lives in North neighborhood of Folwell with her daughter Nia Meyers, 9. Spangenberg stopped by their home June 19, and will visit the home of every incoming fifth-grader.

Spangenberg went over the KIPP model Catching-Meyers and her daughter, a model that includes long school days — 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m. — and an extended school year. When Nia heard about classes every other Saturday, she shot a look at her mom that said: “Are you kidding me?”

But Spangenberg said it’s the extra time in the classroom that makes it possible to have social studies, science and physical education classes every day, not just a couple of times a week. There’s time for recess every day, too.

“That’s what I like,” Catchings-Meyers said as Spangenberg went over a sample schedule with Nia.

Spangenberg explained to Nia that all her teachers will have cell phones, and that she can call on nights and weekends for help with homework. Her mother described that as a major change from Jenny Lind Community School, where Nia completed the fourth grade

“The teachers don’t call home unless something is wrong,”
she said.

She also liked KIPP’s focus on preparing students for college, something that will help Nia achieve her dual career goals: attorney and singer.

“[Nia] needs this school for focus purposes and to feel involved,” Catchings-Meyers said. “She’s not getting the attention she needs [at her MPS school] and she knows that.”

The meeting ended with Spangenberg, Nia and her mother each signing a contract for the next school year.

Even after MPS focused resources on struggling North schools with the North Side Initiative launched last school year, there are enough disaffected parents like Catchings-Meyers to fill a new charter school. But Minneapolis School Board Member Pam Costain said the district should not take an us-versus-them stance to KIPP.

“All competition for Minneapolis Public Schools is of concern for us because we are in a very dire situation of declining enrollment,” Costain said. “That said, it makes no sense for us to wring our hands.”

She praised KIPP’s “make-no-excuses culture,” adding that MPS could learn from the program.

Minneapolis struggles with an achievement gap that has children of color underperforming when compared to white classmates. But KIPP seems to have hit on a formula that works for those students.

About 60 percent of KIPP students are African American and about 35 percent are Hispanic or Latino, the organization reported on its 2007 KIPP Report Card, available on the KIPP website. More than 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

KIPP Stand Academy was expected to be about 85 percent African American students, Mitchell said.

The data KIPP shares with the public indicates some students who spend all four years at a KIPP middle school can make dramatic gains on national standardized tests. On average, students entered school at the 40th percentile in math and the 32nd percentile in reading, and in eight grade tested at the 82nd percentile in math and 60th percentile in reading.

In 2006, when KIPP first announced plans for Minneapolis school, MPS offered to transform one its schools into a KIPP program. Ultimately, KIPP could only get the freedom it required as a charter school, Mitchell said.

Minneapolis School Board Member Chris Stewart called the KIPP negotiations a “missed opportunity,” but said he was eager to learn from the new school.

“It’s totally about the achievement of children and not about the management of territory,” Stewart said.

KIPP’s territory now includes 66 schools in 17 states and the District of Colombia. Mitchell said there were tentative plans to add another middle school, two elementary schools and a high school over the next decade, but added those plans could change.