ST. LOUIS • KIPP St. Louis middle school students average two years of academic growth in just one year. About 92 percent of KIPP St. Louis alumni get into college. That’s all good news to KIPP, a charter school network that seeks to serve African-American students from low-income families.
But school leaders say there’s a problem once their students leave KIPP’s middle schools.
Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis, says 25 percent of students go on to robust high schools that challenge them and believe they can succeed in college. These students include KIPP alumni who go on to earn full scholarships to places like Duke and Washington universities.
The other 75 percent of KIPP alumni, however, have had far less superior high school and college experiences.
“We have kids who are being told, you should go to community college or you should go into the military, when they have the talent and the ability to be successful at a four-year college or university,” Garrett said. “We’ve not seen the level of success we expect for our students.”
This disparity in high school quality is largely what drove KIPP leaders to open their first high school in St. Louis this year.
KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, is a nonprofit, national network of more than 200 charter schools, which are tuition-free, independently run public schools. KIPP takes a no-excuses approach that involves longer school days and school years, and a system of merits and demerits to regulate behavior.
KIPP St. Louis’ high school, which begins fall classes Monday with 130 ninth-grade students in a former Imagine charter school building, represents a milestone in KIPP’s growing reach in St. Louis.
KIPP St. Louis began with 83 students in 2010. Last school year, enrollment topped 1,200. This year, KIPP has added not only a high school, but an additional grade at three of its four other schools — an overall increase of 400 students from last year. In late July, there was a wait list for every grade except for fifth.
School leaders expect to add one more grade to the high school each year and build out to 180 students per grade, 9-12.
KIPP high schools have shown promise in other states. Other regions with a KIPP high school report up to 20 percent higher college matriculation and completion rates than KIPP regions without one, Garrett said. It was “a no-brainer” to open a high school here, he said.
“St. Louis has some really great kids who deserve opportunities,” said Damien Myers, the high school’s biology teacher and a St. Louis native. “The city hasn’t necessarily done that.”
BRINGING UP TO SPEED
All but a few of the high school’s new students took three weeks of summer school from July to August.
On the second day of summer school, Molly Joyce walked around a classroom of about 20 students as she spoke about college. Some students were resting their heads on their desks. She tapped on their shoulders to sit up straight.
Joyce, the KIPP Through College director, asked the new students how much they had talked about college at their previous schools. Not much, some said.
“Welcome to KIPP, where you’ll hear about college all the time,” Joyce told them.
Part of the reason KIPP opened a high school was to offer continuity and consistency for KIPP eighth-graders. Ninety percent of KIPP’s eighth-graders chose to continue at the new high school.
But more than half of the new ninth-graders are not coming from a KIPP school, and that presents a challenge.
“Kids are coming in far, far behind where they need to be,” Garrett said.
On average, students from other schools are coming in four grades behind in reading and math. The students who come from KIPP schools average one grade behind in reading and two in math. To catch students up, the high school plans to focus on reading instruction and online lessons that cater to students’ skill levels.
Newcomers to KIPP will also have to learn the culture of discipline and conduct that is KIPP’s cornerstone. School staff took advantage of summer school to condition new students to KIPP’s rules. In the first two weeks, six students were suspended.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Garrett said.
Though the KIPP culture may seem intimidating or uncomfortable, several students new to KIPP said they welcome it.
Before Tationa Warren, 14, enrolled at KIPP’s high school, she said she was used to seeing students being “so disrespectful” to teachers and disrupting class.
To Tationa, KIPP’s structure and discipline means her classmates won’t distract from her learning. For other students, the culture is not so much about strict discipline as validation of their potential.
“If someone has high expectations for you, that means they care about you,” said Deshonda Burgess, 15 and a ninth-grader at the high school.
FOCUS ON EQUITY
As a virtually all-black and low-income school, racial and socioeconomic equity will be woven into the high school’s fabric.
For example, the school promises that any student who wants to can take an Advanced Placement course, regardless of grades. African-American enrollment in AP courses lags behind white enrollment in St. Louis and elsewhere, which puts black students at a disadvantage in entering and finishing college.
Extracurriculars will include not just the typical student council and sports, but also hip-hop dance and spoken word. Every year, students will be required to complete their own community engagement project, essentially to answer the question: What do you want your neighborhood to look like in 15 years?
Multiple staff members, such as Myers, grew up in the same neighborhoods as their students and are also African-American. Research shows that having a teacher who is also minority often helps bring a level of empathy and cultural understanding to interactions with minority students. That can be key when dealing with issues of discipline and student trauma.
The school’s two co-leaders — Tanesia Simmons, who is black, and Nicole Niewald, who is white — are St. Louis natives who are returning home after years of experience at charter high schools elsewhere. Simmons comes from a Noble charter high school in Chicago, while Niewald comes from a KIPP high school in the Bronx, a borough of New York City.
Simmons grew up blocks from where a KIPP school now stands. Like many of her students, she was reared by a single mother.
“I’ve been in their shoes,” Simmons said.