Lessons from my visit to KIPP Indianapolis, incl. videos
During my visit to KIPP Indianapolis yesterday, I saw in person some of the things that makes KIPP great -- and the typical urban school system terrible. No, this is not yet another story about yet another extraordinary school that's been kicking butt from day 1. Rather, it's a story about a turnaround. See below for details.
Lessons and observations from my visit to KIPP Indianapolis
During my visit to KIPP Indianapolis yesterday, I saw in person some of the things that makes KIPP great -- and the typical urban school system terrible. No, this is not yet another story about yet another extraordinary school that's been kicking butt from day 1. Rather, it's a story about a turnaround.
First, some background. I have a great deal of experience with both for-profit and nonprofit start-ups and it's never easy, but I've NEVER seen any entrepreneurial challenge more difficult than launching and running a successful school in a tough neighborhood, with students who enter well below grade level and accustomed to chaotic schools (and behave accordingly), and operating with less money than regular public schools (plus facilities headaches!). In light of this, KIPP's success rate is nothing short of extraordinary. That said, a small percentage of our schools don't live up to KIPP's high standards (and they are VERY high). KIPP Indianapolis was one such school.
What would the typical school district do with an underperforming school? We don't have to guess because most big-city school systems (aka, The Blob) have nothing but underperforming schools (I'd bet my last dollar that far less than 1% of inner-city public schools in America perform at even the bottom end of the KIPP scale). The Blob's first line of defense is denial: if you don't measure the failure, then the failure doesn't exist, right?
KIPP, in contrast, measures every school's performance using a variety of measures, including both state and national tests, and (I hope you're sitting down) not only publicizes the data internally, but posts it on its web site for the world to see (www.kipp.org/reportcard/2008). If you check out KIPP Indianapolis’s results last year, you’ll see mediocre results.
When The Blob is confronted with evidence of its failure (thank you, NCLB!), the next line of defense is excuses ("we need more money, what can we do with "these" students, etc."). Often, more money does flow, which simply rewards those responsible for the failure. It's little wonder that nothing ever changes...
At KIPP Indianapolis, in contrast, there were no excuses but rather genuine accountability. After last school year, all of the adults at the school had to re-apply for their jobs -- and only five teachers were retained, plus a new School Leader and Assistant School Leader were brought in (Estee Kelly and Emily Pelino, respectively (both TFA alums, by the way)). Now THAT'S accountability! I don't know which is more shocking: the fact that this occurred at a public school in America (such dramatic action is almost unheard of), or the fact that such an obvious, common sense process to turn around an underperforming school isn't automatic when ANY school isn't doing its job.
With so much turnover among the teachers, Estee and Emily had a problem: where to find nearly a dozen kick-ass new teachers? Fortunately, The Blob came to the rescue. Thanks to budget cuts, a number of Indianapolis public school teachers were laid off. Guess which ones? Not the worst teachers -- nope, that would actually put the interests of children ahead of the interests of adults, which almost never happens. Instead, as usual (the only exception I can think of being Michelle Rhee's courageous actions in DC -- and look at the firestorm that's created!), the layoffs were purely seniority driven, which means that many Teach for America corps members we laid off, many of whom were total rock stars. KIPP Indianapolis of course grabbed them and they are now kicking butt for KIPP.
And so it goes...
The point here isn't that KIPP Indianapolis has been suddenly transformed into a perfect school -- the only thing harder than starting a new school serving disadvantaged students is turning one around, so the verdict is still out (though based on everything I saw there, the school is absolutely on the right track). Rather, what's important is the process: a troubled school was identified, given a chance to improve and when that failed, heads rolled. NOTHING stood in the way of what was best for students. It is an OUTRAGE that this isn't the norm everywhere.
Below are three pictures from my visit, plus I posted three AWESOME videos of the students chanting "read, baby, read" and rolling their numbers:
A) Read, baby, read: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rADvu0cPHYA (29 seconds)
B) Rolling their 8's: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kNWFKcqSDrY (42 seconds)
C) Rolling all of their numbers: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkzvvDDswU4 (5:10)