This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
KIPP Philadelphia, affiliated with one of the nation’s largest and most well-known charter organizations, has almost reached its goal of creating a K-12 network of schools in West Philadelphia. Earlier this year, the School Reform Commission approved KIPP’s plan for a new elementary school in Parkside, serving grades K-4.
KIPP opened its first school in Philadelphia in 2003. To round out its presence here, KIPP Philadelphia plans two networks of elementary, middle, and high schools that can take students all the way from kindergarten through 12th grade in high-poverty areas in West Philadelphia and North Philadelphia.
KIPP is intent on filling a need in two stressed communities and offering a structured, academically rigorous environment to underserved families. But, according to the Charter Schools Office, the academic record at some of its schools has not been significantly better than other schools in their neighborhoods.
Local activists have complained that standards for charter renewals and expansions are inconsistent and not transparent, citing the District’s decisions on KIPP, among others. The charter office has significantly slowed KIPP’s original expansion plans due to concerns about academic performance. Opponents of charter growth point out that some KIPP Philadelphia schools have lower scores on the District’s measure of academic quality than public schools flagged as needing turnarounds and converted into charters.
Overall, activists argue, charters may benefit some students, but that comes at the expense of many more students whose District-run schools lack needed services. This argument has been adopted by the NAACP, which has come out against charter expansion for that reason.
“The growth of charter schools is occurring in ways that weaken the whole system,” NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks told Education Week in a Q&A. “We want to make sure that charter schools serve all children and that charter schools are not the refuge for the easiest and least expensive to educate while traditional public schools are the dumping ground for those who are the most expensive and the most difficult to educate.”
KIPP cites a successful record in launching more low-income students to college, despite the middling test scores and other academic indicators.
‘A seamless college-preparatory experience’
The two KIPP networks will ultimately serve 4,400 students, a nearly 150 percent increase from the 1,770 students that the schools now enroll. According to its website, the organization will have 10 schools in Philadelphia by 2019. KIPP counts all middle, elementary, and high schools as separate schools – even if they are part of the same charter and located in the same building.
“By opening elementary, middle, and high schools, we can give students a seamless college-preparatory experience,” said KIPP Philadelphia officials in an emailed statement. “We have started down this path in Philadelphia, and our growth plan is designed to keep the momentum going.”
KIPP’s growth in the city has been slower than planned, and not all of the plans have received full approval. In evaluating KIPP’s schools for renewal and expansion, the District’s Charter Schools Office has attached conditions and cited concerns about its academic performance, particularly at the middle school level.
KIPP’s CEO, Marc Mannella, has acknowledged publicly that some of its academic indicators have been disappointing. But KIPP officials cite evidence that its schools have had success in steering students to college.
Specifically, they say, the first 8th-grade class from KIPP’s original middle school, which graduated in 2007, boasted 35 percent of students obtaining four-year college degrees 10 years later, compared to a 9 percent rate for low-income students nationally. The result is for a cohort of 35 graduates.
“This is significant news,” said Steve Mancini, KIPP national public affairs director.
At the time, 85 percent of KIPP’s students qualified as low income. For the one KIPP school with available state data today, nearly 64 percent are low-income.
He emphasized that the KIPP Through College initiative offers all its 8th-grade graduates personalized counseling and support in preparing for college and that the assistance persists through at least the first year.
“This is a big attraction for parents,” said Mancini, especially in a school district where counselors have felt the budget ax.
In evaluating KIPP for renewals and expansion requests, the School District’s charter office – and the School Reform Commission – have been more skeptical.
KIPP is the second-largest charter network in Philadelphia, after Mastery. But unlike Mastery, it starts its schools from scratch. Mastery has built its network primarily by taking over low-performing District schools.
Creating new schools and growing grade by grade allows KIPP to build up its culture, one that depends on parental involvement and promotes college aspirations from the start.
The most recently approved KIPP school, Parkside, will open as an elementary school in 2019 and feed KIPP’s middle school, to be called West Philadelphia Preparatory.
KIPP had wanted Parkside to serve K-8, but the SRC made extending the grade span dependent on academic improvement in other KIPP middle schools in the city. The SRC granted conditional approval to open a Parkside Middle School in West Philadelphia in 2020; that would be the final piece in KIPP’s planned West Philadelphia network.
KIPP intends to have most students who graduate from Parkside matriculate to KIPP’s only existing high school, DuBois Collegiate Academy, which opened in 2010. On June 9, DuBois graduated its fourth class with 124 students, and eight more are due to graduate after completing summer school.
In North Philadelphia, KIPP has full approval from the School Reform Commission to open a K-4 school in 2018 and conditional approval to open a second middle school in 2019 and a high school in 2020, contingent on academic improvement in its existing upper grades. KIPP North Philadelphia’s elementary school will initially occupy an unused floor of the original KIPP school’s building at 2539 N. 16th St.
According to Mancini, all the schools would be fully enrolled in 2024.
At hearings on the proposed expansion, CEO Mannella said that students coming from schools within the KIPP network would be given preference when applying to the new KIPP schools.
Federal expansion grants
KIPP Philadelphia’s expansion plans were partly dictated by a $29 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the national KIPP Foundation for seeding charter schools. KIPP Philadelphia qualifies for $600,000 for each new school that is approved by 2019.
The Charter Schools Office was concerned about KIPP’s capacity to expand that quickly; it required KIPP to delay Parkside’s opening so it would not open the same year as KIPP North Philadelphia’s elementary school.
“Evaluators have concern for the capacity of KIPP [Philadelphia] to open two new schools in consecutive years or simultaneously in the same year,” the evaluation reads.
Mancini said KIPP Philadelphia would not leave any money on the table even though its expansion plans have been delayed.
Local KIPP entities must meet certain standards to remain affiliated with the national KIPP organization.
According to its expansion application, KIPP Parkside pays the national KIPP organization the standard licensing fee of 1 percent of state and local revenue sent to the school every year, which means that KIPP Philadelphia will return the $600,000 per school and more as the schools grow.
According to KIPP officials, the fee gives “the school the right to use the KIPP name,” so long as it meets KIPP’s “quality standards,” and that it also gives the school access to “leadership development, professional development, and curriculum resources.”
KIPP Philadelphia’s own management fee is 12 percent of all state and local revenue designated for the school, according to the Charter Schools Office’s evaluation. That would start at more than $307,000, then balloon to more than $1.3 million annually by year five, when KIPP Parkside is expected to be at full enrollment. The charter office called this fee “high in comparison to other Philadelphia [Charter Management Organizations].” Typical charter management fees range from 8 to 10 percent.
The fee paid to KIPP Philadelphia goes to support services such as “recruiting and training new teachers, developing and implementing curriculum, overseeing instruction, creating and analyzing student assessments, finding and maintaining school facilities.”
The tug-of-war between charters and District schools in Philadelphia is exacerbated by limited funds and an antiquated charter law that effectively pits the two sectors against each other. (The Pennsylvania Senate passed a revision this week that some charter opponents say will only make things worse.)
In choosing where to locate its networks, KIPP officials sought to put schools in neighborhoods that lack high-quality options. KIPP accepts neighborhood preferences for its schools in an effort to meet community needs.
KIPP’s application for Parkside sought to demonstrate the need for a good school in that neighborhood by citing the District’s own School Progress Reports, which show that most of the schools in the West Philadelphia neighborhood had the lowest of four possible ratings: “intervene.” That means that test scores and other indicators are low enough to trigger major intervention.
However, the charter office’s evaluation noted that KIPP Philadelphia’s original school also received a rating of “intervene” in the 2014-15 school year, although it moved up to “watch” this year — the second-lowest rating.
KIPP’s application pointed out that the catchment area only has 609 K-8 seats available at schools that rank in the top two performance tiers, “reinforce,” and “model.” The charter office noted that no KIPP Philadelphia school has a rating of “reinforce” or “model.”
The three KIPP schools that have been open long enough to receive School Progress Reports have overall ratings of “watch,” and all three have a rating of “intervene” in the category of academic achievement.
That record upsets people who oppose creating more charters and have been seeking more clarity and consistency on the SRC’s standards for converting District schools to charters and renewing and expanding existing charters.
“When [the SRC] took Wister away from the District to give it to Mastery, it was in the ‘watch’ category — above where some of these KIPP schools are,” said Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
When Wister Elementary, in Germantown, entered the Renaissance program and was converted to a Mastery charter last year, its overall rating was 33 percent out of 100. Although that rating was low, it was higher than either KIPP Dubois or KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter this year.
“[KIPP] seems to get so many breaks,” Haver said. “It seems like we have to have another KIPP school at any cost to the community.”
Parkside will open just around the corner from the Rudolph Blankenburg school — one of the District’s low-performing schools that was recently slated for a makeover. Blankenburg will enter the District’s “turnaround” network for schools that need intensive intervention, and the principal and teachers have had to reapply for their jobs.
“Now Blankenburg is going to have an even bigger problem losing students to charters in that neighborhood,” Haver said. “We’re in this never-ending cycle of approving more charter schools, but the charters only make it harder for public schools.”
Parkside will also draw students from the area around Heston, Rhoads and Barry Elementaries — other public schools slated for turnaround. In fact, 44 percent of all elementary schools within 1.5 miles of Parkside are turnaround schools, according to District data. But Pennsylvania’s charter school law does not allow consideration of the possible effect on local public schools in evaluating a proposed charter.
Focus on college prep
Although the charter office evaluates each new charter school application, it does not make a recommendation to approve or deny — that decision is made by the School Reform Commission.
The evaluation states that KIPP’s application “presents a sound and comprehensive academic plan.” But the evaluation also notes that although KIPP’s “mission is clearly focused on ensuring college success,” it does not “provide sufficient detail on how the school would realize its mission.”
Offering college prep to low-income students is the signature focus of KIPP, which began in 1994 in Texas as a middle school program with the goal of challenging low-income students. Its schools, now located around the country, have a longer day and year than public schools, as well as Saturday programming and field trips.
KIPP’s application pointed out that 68 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP Philadelphia middle school enrolled in college. That’s compared to 53 percent for students graduating from District schools, according to the District’s Office of Communications.
KIPP Through College was established in 2007 to track the academic outcomes of students graduating from a KIPP middle school. The initiative provides counselors to all KIPP 8th-grade graduates through high school and college enrollment, when obstacles such as unexpected bills, culture shock, and academic struggles can easily derail even motivated students.
In its application for expansion, KIPP proposed a curriculum that was designed to help students do well on the ACT, one of the two main college entrance tests. However, evaluators expressed concern about this approach because the Charter Schools Office found that in 2014-15, the last year for which data is available, “only 4% of KIPP Philadelphia high school students achieved an ACT score classified as ‘college ready’ by the College Board.”
“The vision does not include values or measurable metrics for evaluating success for KIPP Parkside or the KIPP [Philadelphia] operated schools,” the evaluation reads, “nor is there a discussion of the efforts necessary to close the gaps between the mission of ensuring college success and the current performance of schools operating in the KIPP Philadelphia Network.”
The more recent performance of its middle schools, based on test scores, shows a downward trend. Allison Petersen, the officer who ran the hearings for the SRC, pointed out that recent data showed a decline in math and reading for KIPP middle school students and asked KIPP Philadelphia CEO Mannella what he thought about it.
“We are not satisfied with the current performance of our portfolio,” Mannella said at the second round of charter hearings, while highlighting KIPP’s graduation and college-going data. “We believe we are a better option [than District schools], even though we feel we are not living up to our potential.”
The charter office’s evaluation called the proposed curriculum “well developed and detailed” for English and math, but “the materials presented for science and social studies were less robust.”
Evaluators described the social studies curriculum as a “skeletal framework” that is “primarily focused on American history, with limited reach toward global studies.” The evaluation criticized the science curriculum for including only material found on standardized tests.
The principal, or “school leader” as KIPP calls them, will be former KIPP math teacher Cheshonna Miles. She has been the school leader for KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School for the last two years and was the assistant principal there for three years before that.
At KIPP Parkside’s second charter hearing, the charter office’s executive director, DawnLynne Kacer, asked Mannella what supports KIPP would give Miles. In the last year she spent as school leader at KIPP West, that school’s PSSA scores declined in all three subjects.
Mannella acknowledged “there was a bit of a drop across the board,” but that was partially the result of “staffing.” Specifically, he pointed to two unnamed teachers in the 7th and 8th grades “who have since been replaced.”
He added that he expects those scores to rise in the future. “We think this cohort [of students] is a little different than the one that came before it — not to make excuses.”
KIPP submitted 470 interest forms to the charter office as evidence of the demand from community members for a KIPP school; the charter office evaluation noted that just 133 were for students “grade-eligible to attend,” and only 33 of those lived within the zip codes defined by KIPP. The expected enrollment in the school’s first year is 200 students.
KIPP’s application outlines a recruitment plan to “canvass the neighborhood surrounding our school with fliers and invitations to information sessions,” and a radio recruitment campaign with iHeart Media on WDAS-FM “to promote our enrollment period and lottery.”
But skeptics are not convinced.
“They’re always telling us how massive their wait lists are,” Haver said. “If you really have such a high demand, why do you have to put so much time and resources into recruitment?”
Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to reflect that the poverty rate of KIPP schools was 85 percent at the time the class of 2007 graduated middle school . That was the cohort of students tracked through college.