EDPOSA Visits KIPP Indy

This past Friday EDPOSA visited the Indianapolis KIPP Academy, a member of the charter school network that is often cited as the model for the charter school sector. As a whole, KIPP academies are remarkably successful in providing excellent education to some of nation’s most underserved students, who, without extraordinary interventions, would most likely fail to graduate. With the national graduation rate hovering around 72 to 75 percent, the fact that KIPP students graduate from high school at a rate approaching 95 percent is quite impressive. But like public education in general, there is variation within the KIPP network.

During our conversation with Emily Pelino, the executive director of KIPP Indianapolis, we learned about the troubled history of KIPP Indy. A few years back KIPP Indy almost had its charter revoked as a result of not meeting the terms of its authorization agreement. The exigent circumstances led the board to have a wholesale change of the faculty and administration. Only four of sixteen faculty members were retained and ties with the entire administration were severed, essentially creating an entirely new school organizationally. Remarkably, the school has turned around and received an “A” during its annual review. In light of this success, the KIPP network has given Pelino authorization to begin working to expand the impact of KIPP in Indiana. Ultimately she hopes to open several more academies at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and would like to enroll around 2,200 students, which would be around 8% of the current IPS population.

But how do KIPP schools achieve what traditional public schools often cannot?

Once you step in the door, you quickly notice a culture quite different from other urban schools. The school is orderly to the point where it almost feels like a correctional facility, but the students do not appear to mind. This sense of discipline is reinforced by developing personality characteristics needed to be successful in the working world, which is evident by signs hanging on walls throughout the building urging values like “commitment” and “generosity.”

Not subject to collective bargaining agreement, the school can experiment with an unconventional organizational structure. Monday through Thursday students and teachers are in school until five in the afternoon, while having a shorter day on Friday, and students must also agree to a half day on Saturday. Parents are given teachers’ cell phone numbers and must agree to actively participate in school activities. Pelino stated there was no magic formula that makes KIPP academies so successful, merely a great deal of hard work and a no excuses attitude that pervades the school.

While the results are undeniable, there are several valid critiques of the KIPP model. Many KIPP academies rely extensively on external funding to supplement the relatively low governmental funding pervasive in urban schools. In lean times or when grants run out, these schools are susceptible to revenue shortfalls, which could be financially crippling. Pelino has taken a different approach and has chosen to rely mostly on federal, state, and local funding to avoid this very situation.

Another critique often levied against KIPP academies and charter schools in general is that they are selective in their admissions process and often counsel out problem students who then return to the general public school sector. While Pelino did not deny that this is a concern, she did provide an interesting perspective on how her school manages these issues. Because KIPP Indy performed so poorly during the previous administration, she and her colleagues had to actively recruit any student who would be willing to take the opportunity to opt out of IPS. There was so little interest initially that there was fear the school might not have met the attendance threshold required in the school’s charter and by the state, but she now believes her school is now at a stable enrollment level. Hopefully the school will continue to grow to the point where a lottery will be required to determine who is admitted. KIPP Indy certainly has some work to do, but it’s definitely on the right track.

Mike Poletika

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