Selected readings on US charter schools
Six years after refusing to sell vacant buildings to charter schools, leaders of St. Louis Public Schools on Thursday approved a partnership that would give the charter school organization KIPP St. Louis keys to an empty elementary building. For free.
The Special Administrative Board gave unanimous approval to an agreement that would link the school district with the nonprofit KIPP organization in a way that’s unprecedented in the city. It would allow collaboration in areas such as professional development for teachers. And it would allow KIPP to use the old Mitchell School, 955 Arcade Avenue, for an elementary school slated to open in fall 2014.
The partnership paves the way for KIPP to have access to other empty school buildings in the city for future charter schools, potentially removing one of the largest stumbling blocks to opening a charter in St. Louis. KIPP officials already operate KIPP Inspire Academy, a high-performing middle school in the Fox Park neighborhood, and plan to eventually run five charter schools in St. Louis.
In return, all attendance, enrollment and test score data collected at KIPP’s St. Louis schools would be reflected in the data of St. Louis Public Schools, potentially strengthening the performance of the city school system. State funds flowing to KIPP schools also would pass through the school district. To continue using the buildings, the KIPP schools would need to meet certain performance standards.
KIPP would continue to operate autonomously of the school system, as all tuition-free public charter schools do. Washington University would continue as the sponsor.
At Thursday night’s meeting, board member Richard Gaines expressed concerns that the $800,000 the district estimates it will need to renovate Mitchell School not come from bond issue or desegregation settlement funds. “I’m not questioning KIPP, I’m questioning putting money into something that is tagged something other than SLPS,” he said.
Superintendent Kelvin Adams said he believed it was in the district’s best long-term interest to enter into the agreement. “Hopefully this will change the landscape of how this city works to do the best for our kids,” he said.
In a joint interview earlier this week, the heads of KIPP St. Louis and the city school system said the partnership developed after about six months of discussion.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis.
“We are working to make sure we forge partnerships that touch students in a real, positive way,” Adams said.
The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, is a nonprofit network of charter schools, tuition-free public schools that operate independent of traditional school districts. With 125 schools in 20 states and Washington, it’s the largest chain of charter schools in the nation.
Locally, at KIPP Inspire middle school, fifth- through eighth-graders have shown significant gains each year. In 2009, 34 percent of fifth-graders at the school tested at grade level in math, and 22 percent in English, according to results from the Missouri Assessment Program. By the end of seventh grade, their passing rates had about doubled, with 67 percent at or above grade level in math, and 44 percent in English.
In St. Louis Public Schools, 27 percent passed the state math exam last year and 30 percent passed in English.
The time and intensity of the KIPP program is greater than most traditional public schools. KIPP students have longer days and school years than their peers in traditional public schools. They are overwhelmingly from low-income and minority families. Yet they are expected to perform at the same levels as their peers in more affluent schools, making KIPP schools a flash point for some who question whether meeting such goals is possible.
In Houston, where KIPP schools originated, the public school system is replicating some of KIPP’s practices, such as longer school days and extended school years, in some schools.
The St. Louis agreement illustrates the thawing relationship between charter school organizers and school district administrators in the city, some of whom still view success of the other as a threat to their own survival.
“Finally, we’re moving into a world where this collaboration is possible,” Garrett said.
Adams said the partnership with KIPP goes beyond what’s best for the school district or the charter school organization. “It’s what’s best for the region and city,” he said.
In 2011, Adams reversed a decade of district resistance to charter schools by putting the school system into the role of leasing and possibly selling vacant buildings to charters. So far, the school system has sold one building to Concept Schools, a nonprofit charter operation, for $1.2 million. The company runs Gateway Science Academy and is renovating the Gardenville School, 6651 Gravois Avenue, for kindergarten through 12th grade, starting this fall with K-5. Dozens more former city schools sit empty.
Adams has also advocated district sponsorship of charter schools so he and district officials could have better control over their quality. In 2012, the administrative board approved a sponsorship arrangement with Lighthouse Academies. However, that arrangement fell apart last spring.
Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch – by Elisa Crouch; Valerie Schremp Hahn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report