By Joy Jenkins | August 1, 2012
Read the full article at TulsaPeople.com >
In late June, nearly 100 incoming fifth-graders and other new students converged at KIPP Tulsa, a college-preparatory public middle school in north Tulsa, for five days of summer school. From 7:45 a.m.-3 p.m., they got to know their teachers; bonded with students in their grade, or “teams”; and learned the ins and outs of the distinctive KIPP culture.
By Friday, the change from traditional fifth-graders to KIPP fifth-graders was evident. Anytime the students had to wait, whether in line to go to lunch or to talk to a teacher, they “assigned themselves,” taking out books in an effort to spend any spare moment learning. Before leaving a classroom, students quietly stood; pushed in their chairs; and, row by row, formed a line, walking silently and “with urgency” to their destination.
In a math class, students learned to “roll their numbers,” an approach to memorizing multiplication tables through reciting catchy, unison chants. When they performed well, they were encouraged to give themselves a hand, then to give themselves another hand and finally, at their teacher’s instruction, “Show yourselves some love.”
This focus on positive reinforcement was also evident in the banners hanging on classroom walls: “If there is a better way, we find it.” “Knowledge is power.” “All of us will learn.” “If we need help, we ask.” And the mandate that also graces teachers’ uniform polo shirts: “Work hard. Be nice.”
KIPP Tulsa, which serves 330 students in the fifth through eighth grades, is part of the national Knowledge is Power Program, a network of tuition-free, open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools that focuses on reaching students in underserved communities.
Thanks to the school’s emphasis on high expectations, extended classroom time, effective leaders and student performance, KIPP Tulsa students, 95 percent of whom are African American and Latino and 86 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch, are making significant academic gains and finishing the eighth grade ready to enter college-preparatory high school programs. In fact, all “KIPPsters” will spend their first day of school on a college campus.
It’s all designed to send a clear message to KIPP students, says John Wolfkill, KIPP Tulsa’s executive director.
“It is about getting through and to college,” he says.
In this, its eighth year, KIPP Tulsa is poised to make further gains. Following the model of KIPP’s 125 other schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP Tulsa achieved charter status July 1, providing an opportunity to grow its program to serve even more students.
A new approach
KIPP Tulsa began in 2005 at the suggestion of a Tulsa Public Schools task force evaluating uses for the previous Woods Elementary School facility next to Booker T. Washington High School. The task force was looking for a unique kind of school to partner with TPS, and the KIPP model, which was seeing impressive results in underserved minority student populations nationwide, seemed like the perfect choice.
The school’s first leader was Millard House, who, as principal of Anderson Elementary, helped that school increase its Academic Performance Index from 121 to almost 1,200 in five years.
“My kids were leaving at high levels, were proficient and advanced, and I wanted something in the neighborhood that would allow them to go to middle school,” he says.
In 2004, House was selected to attend a one-year program preparing him to found and lead a new KIPP school in an underserved community. A year later, he returned to his hometown to launch KIPP Tulsa less than a quarter of a mile away from the elementary school that inspired him.
In KIPP’s first year, the school welcomed 90 fifth-graders to a temporary home at the former Lindsey Elementary facility. In the school’s second year, it moved to its current location at 1661 E. Virgin St. and added sixth grade and welcomed a new crop of fifth-graders.
House saw continual improvements in student achievement during the four years he spent as school leader.
“We saw more and more students that had the opportunity to move forward, to accomplish that goal of being college ready and college bound,” he says.
House attributes KIPP Tulsa’s effectiveness to two key factors: time on task and effective teachers. Because of a longer school day, mandatory Saturday school and summer school, and after-school programming, KIPP students receive 60 percent more instruction and more than 500 additional hours of instruction than students in traditional public schools, he says. Teachers also work a 10- to 12-hour school day.
As the first KIPP Tulsa fifth-graders enter their senior year of high school this year, House says that he is impressed with the growth at KIPP and the work of its board and school leaders.
“They’ve kept the spirit alive, and they’ve kept the expectation alive that kids climb that mountain to college,” he says.
When John Wolfkill learned that only 7 percent of TPS graduates (and just 1 to 2 percent of African American and Hispanic students) are ready for college, it was a “gut-check moment,” he says. He decided he wanted to become involved.
A little over two years later, the former Tulsa Community Foundation executive became KIPP Tulsa’s first executive director.
Wolfkill says that for many KIPP students, college was an enigma, and they may be the first in their families to attend.
“You can’t discount the importance of having a mind-set to college, and … the mind-set of high expectations and the growth of all students,” he says. “We have the high expectation that all students can and will learn. It’s not based on how smart you’re born, but intelligence is earned by lots of effort.
“And that, I think, makes KIPP a very special place. We set high expectations for behavior. We set high expectations for academics, for character. And we follow up on that; we focus on results. We look at the data on an individual student basis. What is the data telling us, and how do we change our practice to better support that student?”
Although KIPP Tulsa has made great strides, with every new fifth-grade class comes new challenges. In 2011 alone, 64 percent of incoming KIPP Tulsa fifth-graders were below grade level in reading and 67 percent were below grade level in math, Wolfkill says. As a result, he says, more time with students during the school day, as well as on weekends, is crucial.
KIPP Tulsa also encourages scholarship through engaging approaches to learning, from the multiplication-table chants to songs used in social studies classes to help students learn directions.
To promote good behavior, students gain and lose points toward a weekly paycheck, which could earn them a trip to a bowling alley or skating rink during the year and, ultimately, a spot on the roster to attend one of KIPP Tulsa’s end-of-year “field lessons,” which take students to major cities such as Chicago and New York.
Helping kids learn
Wolfkill calls teachers the “heart and soul” of the school. KIPP Tulsa’s instructors not only teach in the classroom but also oversee extracurricular activities and make themselves available via cell phone until 9 p.m. to assist students and their families. They focus on evaluating student data and identifying ways to customize approaches to individual student needs.
Carlisha Williams, a 2011 Teach for America corps member who teaches eighth-grade math at KIPP Tulsa, says she has seen the benefits of the school’s academic model.
“It’s a place of possibilities,” she says. “ … I saw students who came into my class that were on a fourth-grade level for math. We’ve seen years and years of growth. One of my students grew four years in math, four degrees in her math scores this year.”
At KIPP Tulsa, Williams says, teachers are encouraged to explore “off the wall” methods to help students learn. She has used Egyptian pyramids to teach geometry and turned her classroom’s floor into a grid to teach slope. She even started a KIPP step team, which competed against, and beat, college-level teams.
Williams describes one eighth-grader who finished eighth grade at KIPP Tulsa in spring 2012. A special-education student, he studied with a tutor and worked tirelessly to pass his first state test. When she told him he had, he said, “Really? Are you sure?” but he was ecstatic.
Seeing him go into high school knowing he was ready was exciting, she says, and she credits KIPP Tulsa’s longer hours and continued support for the improvement.
“(It) can really transform a child to be ready for that next step,” she says.
Groomed for success
Sierra Lyons is another KIPP Tulsa student who was transformed by her experience. Now beginning her junior year at Edison Preparatory School, Lyons was part of the second class of fifth-graders at KIPP.
“Going to college is one thing, but graduating is another, and just the organization skills that they would teach and the drive and the momentum” KIPP Tulsa offered was valuable, Sierra’s mother, Jeanne, says.
Now, Jeanne has two other children who were promoted from KIPP Tulsa and one who is entering the seventh grade.
Sierra says her time at KIPP taught skills that continue to benefit her, such as public speaking and time management. She also appreciated KIPP’s family-like atmosphere.
“Everybody’s a team and everybody’s a family because we’re around each other so much,” she says. “We all kind of grew on each other, especially after fifth grade, finding out we all made it together.”
Now, Sierra is poised to finish high school with an associate’s degree from Tulsa Technology Center and a high school diploma. From there, she plans to attend Oklahoma State University to pursue a career in engineering — an interest spurred by a female engineer’s visit to KIPP Tulsa.
Jeanne says her other children also are being groomed for success, thanks to the opportunities they have received at KIPP.
“What they give these kids is the realization that anything they put their minds to and work for, they can do and will do,” she says.
Ready to grow
With the 2012-2013 school year, KIPP Tulsa students and teachers will enter a new phase in the school’s evolution. The new charter status opens doors for the program, Wolfkill says, most notably the opportunity to expand KIPP Tulsa in the form of additional local schools. This growth is part of a new focus for KIPP nationally, an effort to go deeper with and serve a higher concentration of students.
KIPP Tulsa’s strategic plan includes a second middle school, two elementary schools and a high school, creating a five-school feeder program in Tulsa. The eventual goal, Wolfkill says, is to serve 2,200 students by the year 2020.
In the meantime, KIPP Tulsa’s leaders remain focused on ensuring students are ready to enter and finish college. Currently, 85 percent of KIPP graduates nationally will graduate and attend college. From there, 39 percent will complete college, representing a 9 percent increase from the national average and a 31 percent increase among minority students.
However, among students from high socio-economic backgrounds, 80 percent who go to college graduate, Wolfkill says.
“We’re still sobered by the fact that there’s a large achievement gap, and we have to continue pushing ourselves to close that gap,” he says.
KIPP Tulsa is working to close that gap through expanded offerings, such as the KIPP Through College program, in which mentors help students promoted from KIPP entering their senior year identify colleges, complete applications and seek financial assistance, says Kendra Bramlett, former KIPP Tulsa school leader.
Students can even return to KIPP for tutoring.
Nationally, KIPP is also working to create partnerships with notable colleges and universities to help students find the right college fit or to create opportunities for several “KIPPsters” to attend the same institution, extending KIPP’s family-like support, Wolfkill says.
According to the school’s strategic-planning consultants, KIPP Tulsa has the potential to increase the number of college graduates in north Tulsa by 44 percent, Wolfkill says.
Even as KIPP makes plans for growth, its focus — and heart — remains on the north Tulsa community, creating a hope and desire in students for a bright future, one that includes college.
Twins Kerrigan and Ty Hall are “KIPPsters” to the core.
Now entering the eighth grade, they have been involved with the KIPP Tulsa marching band — both are gunning for the drum major title this year — and student council, with Kerrigan planning to run for president and Ty for vice president this year.
Just a few years ago, Ty and Kerrigan were fourth-grade students at a different Tulsa public school. Kerrigan, a self-described “teacher’s pet,” enjoyed the school but says she didn’t feel challenged. For her, a move to KIPP Tulsa, with its demanding academic standards, 7:45 a.m.-5 p.m. school day and focus on college readiness, provided an ideal alternative.
“I think KIPP has made the difference for me because at my old school, I feel I wasn’t challenged enough,” she says. “So, when I came here, I knew it was going to be definitely a different time for me.”
Ty, meanwhile, spent his first year at KIPP struggling behaviorally and academically. He got in trouble often, and although he completed his homework, he didn’t turn it in.
In the second semester of his sixth-grade year, though, he visited the school library and saw a student sitting behind the desk. Ty asked the librarian whether he could work behind the desk, too. Although the responsibility was typically reserved for seventh- and eighth-graders, the librarian said that if Ty turned in his homework and improved his grades, she would make an exception. Now, Ty earns mostly As and Bs and has attended his first “incentive trip” — a visit to Skate Land.
“It was kind of a confidence booster for me knowing I could do anything I wanted to do,” he says. “I just had to put my effort into it.”
Ty and Kerrigan’s mother, Sabrina, says she appreciates that KIPP Tulsa’s teachers and staff get to know students personally, recognizing goals and creating opportunities to achieve them. She says teachers also reach out to parents, letting them know when their children pass tests and meet aims, and she is welcome to visit the school anytime. She has been so impressed with the school, in fact, that a third Hall child also attends there.
At KIPP, Sabrina says, “we’re part of something bigger.”
A national model
The national KIPP concept began in 1994 with two Ivy League-educated Teach for America corps members who wanted to offer a different approach to education. Working with fifth-graders in inner-city Houston, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin saw the academic potential in their mostly minority students, but they were frustrated by the obstacles accompanying traditional approaches to public education. So, one night in 1993, they created a different plan for teaching fifth-graders, one that emphasized “high standards, hard work and a focus on results,” according to a 2006 article in U.S. News & World Report.
By the following year, they had opened two KIPP middle schools, one in Houston and one in New York City, and by 1999, those two original KIPP charter schools had become some of the highest-performing schools in their communities, according to the KIPP website. In 2000, Feinberg and Levin partnered with Doris and Donald Fisher, co-founders of Gap Inc., to train leaders who would replicate the success of the original KIPP middle schools in other communities and expand the model to elementary and high school programs.
As of 2011, 36 percent of KIPP students had completed a four-year college after finishing eighth grade at a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago. Additionally, KIPP’s four-year college-completion rate is above the national average for students across all income levels and nearly four times the rate for students from low-income families. KIPP’s goal is to attain a college completion rate for its students that is comparable to the nation’s highest-income students, according to the KIPP website.
A Lighthouse for learning
Another new charter school has created a place in north Tulsa and is ready to make an impact on students.
Lighthouse Academy, located in the former Greeley Elementary School facility, opens this month, welcoming 280 students in prekindergarten through fourth grade. Like KIPP Tulsa, Lighthouse Academy is part of a national network of schools focused on preparing students for college.
Founded in 2003, the Lighthouse Academies network now operates in six states and the District of Columbia, serving approximately 5,300 students. Of those students, 79 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch and the majority are ethnic minorities.
Tulsa’s Lighthouse Academy is the first school in the network to be located in Oklahoma. Michael Ronan, CEO and founder of Lighthouse Academies, discussed the idea of bringing an academy to Tulsa for more than a year. He met with individuals in the north Tulsa community, visited churches, talked with Tulsa Public Schools officials and recruited board members.
The key to making the school a reality, though, was a transition team made up of Teach for America corps members in Tulsa. Starting in August 2011, the team researched testing and curriculum approaches and worked to create a presence for Lighthouse in the community, as well as helped write the school charter and ensured it was accepted.
Lighthouse Academy was approved in January 2012, and Jamila MacArthur was hired as the founding school leader in February.
A native of Clinton, Okla., who previously taught in Los Angeles, MacArthur says she was drawn to the Lighthouse model because it will add a grade level each year, allowing her to see students grow and develop until they graduate from high school.
“You get to see them through their entire school career and see their progress and see them reach their goals, and I think that’s what’s amazing,” she says. “And we make the promise to our families, and it’s part of one of our requirements, that you receive an acceptance letter to a four-year university when you graduate with us. … We want all of our kids to have that option.”
The school emphasizes college readiness through its academic approach and its appearance. Each classroom will be named after a college or university, and college pennants will hang throughout the school. Students will also have opportunities to visit college campuses and hear presentations from college graduates about their experiences and careers.
“We want that to be a very real part of all of our kids’ environments,” MacArthur says. “ … It’s not just our goal for our kids to get to college; it’s to graduate from college.”
The arts are a major focus as well. In a math class, students may sing songs to remember a concept or they could paint a mural and then write about it in English class. Students will also work with “master artists” from the Arts & Humanities Council of Tulsa.
Lighthouse’s charter status allows the school to offer a longer school day (8 a.m.-4 p.m.) and additional days of instruction (190 days for students). As a result, MacArthur says, the school promises that no matter at what level a student enters, whether two grades ahead or two grades behind, he or she will show a year and a half’s worth of growth in reading and math.
As Lighthouse Academy solidifies its place in the community, MacArthur says she looks forward to working with other schools, charter and otherwise, to offer the best education possible for Tulsa students.
“The biggest goal overarching is to prove what’s possible in public education,” she says. “I think our kids are destined to succeed, and … as educators, we just have to give them the opportunity in order to show what they’re capable of.”