Friday, April 15, 2016

On Choosing a School

Normal disclaimers: This is my personal opinion and I’m not speaking in an official capacity for KIPP Philadelphia or KIPP more broadly.

My oldest son turned five a few months ago and like many parents, my wife and I have thought a lot about where to send him to kindergarten next year. The issue of what school to send your child is a complicated, personal matter and like it is for all families, this is a difficult decision that we’ve spent a ton of time talking about. Your child only gets one shot at a great education and every parent wants to make sure their child is in the best environment possible for them.

As lifelong educators, my wife and I are profoundly aware that we have the privilege of having more options than most families in Philadelphia. Our neighborhood public school is near our home, gets solid academic results, and we know families who have had a great experience there. There are a couple of charter schools in our area that also have strong results. While neither of us would prefer to spend thousands of dollars on private school, we make comfortable enough salaries that we could rework our budget to possibly make this an option.

And then there is the option we have decided to choose: sending our son to KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy (KPEA) in North Philadelphia. Both my wife and I have worked at KIPP Philly for many years and KPEA is the school where I have been the principal since its opening in 2010.

While these are personal choices, as the school leader of a high-profile charter school, I know people are curious about what my wife and I decide and why we made the choice we did. So how did we make our decision? Simple – we did what all parents do and thought about what is the best school for our son. We thought about what kind of person we’re trying to raise and decided that KPEA is the school that would best help him reach our goals for him.

In particular, we thought about a few important considerations. First, we looked at the teachers and learning environment. I know first-hand that the teachers at KPEA are incredibly talented, caring, thoughtful teachers who balance high-expectations for their students with love. I know our son will love coming to school and learning each day. Kindergarten at KPEA is a joyous, fun-filled time where kids learn so much and love to learn. I would feel totally confident that our son would get a great education from any and all of our kindergarten classrooms. At KPEA, there is also a ton of small group, differentiated instruction so that students get instruction tailored for what they already know and what they need next. Our son has benefited from high-quality pre-k and coming from a two-educator household and I know he’s going to be pushed to start reading as soon as he’s ready. At the same time, he’ll also get extra help when he needs it. 

Besides strong core academics, students at KPEA get a really well-rounded education. In their homeroom, students sing, dance, draw, play, and create throughout the day. They have recess, take naps, and go on frequent field trips. They study art, music, PE, and science from specialists in those subjects, with students as young as kindergarteners creating beautiful paintings and starting to learn to read music. As students get older, they create artwork that is featured in local galleries, compete in the Reading Olympics, travel to Carnegie Hall to play their recorders with a real orchestra, and a ton more. Who wouldn’t want that for their child?

The second consideration we thought about was equity, diversity, and race. It is no secret we live in a profoundly unequal country, where race still shapes all our lives in ways seen and unseen. KPEA’s student body is nearly 100% Black/Hispanic and over 90% of our students quality for free/reduced meals. My son is white and will be one of the 10% who pays full price for his lunch (assuming we can break him from his marshmallow fluff/Nutella sandwich habit). Because of our economic and racial privilege, we could send our son to a high-quality school with a predominantly white student body, but we’re choosing not to.

These dynamics of race and class are real and they will no doubt lead to our son asking my wife and me hard questions that we may not always know the right answer to, but that’s actually the point. If we really want to raise a son who is empathetic, culturally competent, and seeks to fight injustices in the world around him, we must intentionally seek ways to break out of the divisions that society perpetuates. As a young white man, it would be too easy for our son to go through life having the privilege to see our family’s cultural traditions and beliefs reflected by society at large and not see that those depictions hide a wide variety of beliefs, histories, and cultures just in our own city. We want him to know and appreciate that his black friend’s hair is different than his own. We want him to see Qamar is as “normal” a name as Joseph. We want him to understand why his friend’s mother chooses to cover her hair or face in public. And we want him to understand that the media’s depiction of race, class, and religion too often perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. He’s going to have questions about differences and his friends will have questions for him – and that’s something to be valued and celebrated.

And of course, I know it’s different for my son to be the “principal’s kid,” but I have confidence in how this will go based on the fact that we have a handful of KIPP Philly staff who already have their children at KPEA and have had a very positive experience. When you work in education, you know intimately what families are looking for in school and it brings me a lot of pride as an educator that many of our own staff members have chosen to send their own children to KPEA. Our family is looking forward to a great year next year and I personally am excited to get the extra bonus to see my son learning up close each day.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Is This Progress?

Normal disclaimers: This is my personal opinion and I’m not speaking in an official capacity for KIPP Philadelphia or KIPP more broadly.

Too many schools who serve black and brown students are profoundly unsafe for kids. Physical fights, verbal abuse, and severe bullying are not just common; they are constant presences that permeate all aspects of schooling. It’s not just bullying in the bathroom or chaotic cafeterias, it’s students being constantly on edge that even in the their own classroom a group of students may rush in and assault you during math class. This is real and it’s heartbreaking and education policy often glosses over the harsh realities many students suffer from.

So I get why teachers and school leaders feel the need to basically take any measure to create a safe learning environment. But schools that approach their own students from a deficit mindset, operating under a belief that giving students any freedom will invariably start the school sliding down a slippery slope towards chaos are doing their students almost as much harm as schools that allow physical violence to define their students’ school experience.

Two recent examples remind me of how far the charter community needs to come in these areas. A few weeks ago, I was talking to a teacher at another local charter school that has a pretty good reputation who teaches early elementary and she shared some details about her school that I found pretty disturbing. Her students are not allowed to talk and socialize at breakfast or lunch; they get no recess, and don’t have PE. Even in the classroom, instruction is super rigid and kids are expected to sit with their hands folded all day with perfect posture. I’m trying to think of a description of this school that is less dramatic than child abuse – remember these are 5 and 6 year olds – but a suitable substitution escapes me.

Secondly, in a recent article in Chalkbeat that summarizes some evolution in charter school discipline practices, a charter school in NYC shows how far they have come by talking about how in prior years students coming to school in the “wrong” color socks were sent to the discipline dean’s office, but now the school helpfully stocks extra socks so students can change and get to class. It’s apparently not an option to allow students to wear whatever color socks they prefer, because of course there are many studies linking sparkly blue socks to students acting out in class or yellow stripped socks to lower test scores so we need put a stop to that immediately. This is not progress that anyone should be proud of. 

Creating schools that are full of love, joy, positive relationships, and that operate from the essential position that kids are inherently good, while at the same time meeting the very real needs that some students bring with them to school caused by poverty, trauma, and racism is not easy. But doing anything less just isn’t good enough and we need to stop acting like it is.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What It Takes to Serve All Kids

Normal disclaimers: This is my personal opinion and I’m not speaking in an official capacity for KIPP Philadelphia or KIPP more broadly. I also have a limited knowledge of New York state charter law and I’ve never visited Success Academies. I respect a bunch of people who have worked there and have used some of their curriculum and instruction resources.

I have a couple of thoughts on the recent controversy about Success Academies enrollment, suspension, and discipline policies and the larger debate it’s kicked off that it’s ok that some charter schools (or any school) are not the right fit for all kids.

The larger debate about whether an individual school is the best fit for all students ignores the reality that in many states, including Pennsylvania, charter schools have a legal (and I’d argue ethical) obligation to provide a support/program/school that is best for each student…even if that is not what the school typically provides. Arguing that it is not your mission or “it’s not what we do” doesn’t matter one bit – it’s your job. See the footnote below for more on this.

I’ve written pretty extensively about my belief that my goal at KIPP Philadelphia Elementary Academy is that we must work hard to meet the needs of all kids who are lucky enough to get a spot through our open lottery. We have an obligation to serve a student body that is representative of the neighborhoods where we work, that we must keep our students, and we must serve them well. We have almost 90% of our families qualifying for free/reduced lunch and about 25% of students having an IEP, with that number including students with Autism, Down’s Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, severe emotional needs, auditory/visual challenges, and intellectual disabilities.

It pains me when I see others in the broader movement for education reform and excellence seemingly not operating from the same mindset or even straight up arguing that charters don’t need to work hard to meet the needs of all kids. It especially pains me when we’re talking about kids in elementary school where because of age, size, and developmental reasons, it’s frankly easier to do this than working with older students. At the same time, it is important to recognize that kids as early as kindergarten can present real and significant challenges that can be dangerous to other students and really impact the education of others. Don’t fool yourself and think otherwise.

But what I’m not hearing in the debate that is playing out right now is that there are so many options for what schools (of any type) can be and should be doing when students are struggling. The debate does not need to simply be tolerating unsafe schools vs. kicking out “hard” kids. A good school can serve all students and have safe, productive learning environment if that is your goal – but you have to try and you have to commit the resources, including money, to doing it. I don’t know what Success Academy did or didn’t do to support students in the examples in the Times, but here is how this plays out at KPEA. We try to do the following:

  • Build strong, trust-based relationships with families starting during the enrollment process through home visits, Open Houses, positive phone calls, Saturday School, etc. 
  • Create a student culture approach based on teaching students common expectations and values without a punitive discipline system
  • Hire teachers and staff who are talented, mission-aligned, and culturally competent.
  • Even more than that, you need a staff who understands that there will be challenges and hard times working with students with real needs. Staff members need to have that magical combination of patience, understanding, and urgency to figure out what will work for a student. It’s not easy!
  • Align all adults in the building that student compliance is never our only goal and that we give our kids freedom knowing they will sometimes make mistakes.
  • Understand that student success will look different for each kid and that’s ok. We need to do what’s best for each individual student and that sometimes looks very different.
  • Make sure teachers are trained in problem solving approaches so they have the skills to work with students and families to make a plan for what a student needs to be successful
  • Because we know we will have students with a variety of needs, we need to staff our schools that way. In kinder and 1st grade, each of our classrooms has two full-time teachers. Each grade has a special education teacher; we have a social worker, 1.5 speech therapists, and an occupational therapist. We have a Dean of Students and a behavior specialist who work proactively to support students who have behavior interventions.
  • Sometimes it makes sense to change a student’s seat, carpet spot, or even their homeroom for one reason or another.
  • The teachers for each homeroom meet every 3 weeks with the social worker, assistant principal, speech therapists and any other adults involved with support students in that room to talk for 50 minutes about students in need of extra support, whether it is academic, emotional, social, etc. We check up on plans already in place and create new ones as needed.
  • Because we know occupational therapy (OT) needs often impact attention and focus, we provide students with OT tools like inflatable seat cushions, weighted stuffed animals to hold, and safe items for students to chew, all to meet their sensory needs.
  • In a similar way, students with language needs may have trouble expressing their frustrations and feelings, leading to tantrums and outbursts. Our speech therapists work with students on their expressive language so they can communicate not only academically but about their feelings.
  • We work collaboratively with any outside agencies providing support to students and families so that the support we provide in school matches. Our social worker is an expert at supporting families so they can successfully access these services.
  • When kids are struggling, we work with families to figure out what is possibly behind the behavior and think about what we all can do better. This could be phone calls, in person meetings, or sometimes going out to the family’s home if that is easier. The conversation is always framed from the perspective of, “What can we all do differently so that the student is more successful tomorrow, next week, and next month?”
  • This sometimes looks like kids getting very different kind of plans. Students may earn special rewards, have adjusted schedules with more breaks, start their day with a trusted staff member, etc. We have students who do yoga every morning when they arrive, others who get a dance break every day at mid-morning, and others who have a special hand signal to privately tell their teacher when they are getting frustrated. Key idea is we need to plan for each student as an individual.
  • When kids need even more support – give it to them. This can look like 1-1 reading groups, more frequent work with our social worker, or having one of our student culture/behavior staff members support the student 1-1 during certain parts of the day.
  • Sometimes this means clearly laying out consequences for students. When we do call mom? When does a student lose a privilege? What has to happen for the student to leave the classroom? But we always operate from the standpoint that consequences are not by themselves going to lead to long-term success for students.
  • If this isn’t enough for a student to be successful, we work with families to make sure they are accessing any services they can (when relevant) and means we may hire (at our expense) additional behavior support staff hours to provide 1-1 support if needed. 
  • During our six year, we had one student whose family agreed that it would make sense for a temporary change of placement to a more specialized program for students with emotional needs. Since we are our own LEA, we worked with the family to find the best program for their child, paid for this expense, and worked with the program staff to make sure everyone was on board with supports she was getting, and then successfully transitioned the student back to KPEA, where she is doing wonderfully this year.

What we don’t do is expel, counsel out, or suspend students to “push” them out. We also never tell families that we can’t meet their needs or that another school would be a better “fit”. Every year, our student attrition rate is below 3%, our suspension rate was 2%, and we’ve never expelled or counseled a student out.

This work is hard and it depends on an amazingly dedicated staff working in concert. In real life we don’t always feel successful with every kid each day at KPEA, but that doesn’t mean we give up on kids or accept kids not learning. It means we figure out what is working, what’s not, and work as a team to try something different. That’s our job and it’s our mission.

Final footnote - I’d love to read more reporting about how New York state charter law works with regards to serving students who may need additional supports. I especially have not read anything about how NY charter school LEA (Local Education Authority) status impacts the decisions Success Academy makes. This varies by state, but In general, if a charter school is its own LEA, then the charter school has the legal obligation to serve every student who enrolls. This may mean providing extra services inside the school or potential finding a specialized program for a student, with the charter school paying for this program. In short, if a charter school is its own LEA, it’s analogous to being a school district and you can’t “pass off” a student to another entity. If a charter school is part of a larger LEA, normally the school district the charter school is physically part of, then the LEA may have final responsibility to find and pay for specialized programs. In this case, a charter school would legally be allowed to refer a student to a more specialized program without paying for the program or having further responsibility for that student’s education. Like I wrote above, these legal issues are important because different schools in different states have different legal (but maybe not ethical) responsibilities.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Thoughts on the Upcoming Charter School Vote

Normal disclaimer that this is my personal blog and I don't officially speak for KIPP Philadelphia.

As a resident of Philadelphia and a parent, I appreciate the real challenges facing the School District and the decision the SRC has to approve or deny new charter applications. The budget disaster is mostly caused by a lack of funding from the state and makes it really hard for the district to do lots of things they wish they could. It's a huge issue I've written about and understandably colors the charter approval process. But if you listen to some advocates recently, you would think there are no charters worthy of approval and that's just not true. While some schools applying don't serve high need students or don't serve them well, you can't reasonably make that case about KIPP Philadelphia. While we are always looking to do better for our students, we know that we serve all kids and serve them well at KIPP Philly. Some quick examples of our results:

Our students

  • This year 86% of our student qualify for free/reduced lunch (76% free)
  • Over 20% of our students have IEPs. At our elementary school where I am the principal, we have students with Down Syndrome, autism, and intellectual disabilities, as well as many students with more minor challenges. 
  • Our student attrition is low, with a 6% student attrition rate using the SDP's methodology of September though June of a single year. 
  • At our elementary school, our kindergarten through 3rd grade cohort retention rate was 93%, which was significantly higher than the 61% number for schools in NYC schools (no data like this exists in Philadelphia).

  • Our results

  • Our middle school in West Philadelphia (KWPP) had an SPP of 74, which is higher than all but 2 district schools with more than +80% free/reduced lunch.
  • At our North Philadelphia middle school (KPCS), 76% of our 8th graders passed the math PSSA. Only 2 district schools had over 80% free/reduced lunch and had a higher PSSA score than we had at KPCS.
  • Last year was the first time our elementary school had students old enough to take the PSSA. Of the almost 150 SDP elementary schools, only 5 had more than 80% of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch and scored higher on the 3rd grade math test. In reading, it was only 7 schools serving a similar population who had higher scores.
  • At our high school (KDCA), every single student takes the ACT and our scores are comparable or even surpass some of the best open-enrollment SDP high schools like Bodine and Girls.   
  • Our original students at KIPP aren't old enough to have graduated from college, but nationally, students at KIPP are 5 times more likely to graduate college than their low-income peers.

  • We have also been a leader in transparency with our Open Book section of our website and our enrollment practices have been held up by the district and the Education Law Center as models for other charter to emulate.

    While Donna Cooper is right that we don't want to harm one child by helping another, the status quo right now means tens of thousands of kids in Philadelphia are in low-performing schools. By doing nothing and rejecting even high-quality charter schools, we are causing them continued harm. The SRC can make targeted approvals of the best charter applicants committed to serving high-need students and help more climb the mountain to and through college.

    Tuesday, February 10, 2015

    Some student attrition data

    Eva Moskowitz from Success Academies wrote an op-ed this morning about charter school enrollment and attrition data. She uses interesting attrition data for NYC charters and district schools that we don't have here in Philadelphia. The budget office in NYC looked at what percent of students present for kindergarten were still in that school 4 full school years later (day 1 of 3rd grade).

    The average for charters was 70% and district schools was 61% - which obviously is a huge piece of evidence against those who attribute academic gains in charters to kicking out students. 

    I was curious what our results at KPEA would be like since while we know we have very low student attrition each year (<4%) it can actually be tough to visualize this over time for one cohort of kids.

    Our founding class is now in 4th grade so I looked at how many of the 75 student present when they started kindergarten in August of 2010 were with us last year on the first day of 3rd grade. Of those original students, 70, or 93% were still at KPEA. 18 months later, as we head to the end of 4th grade and those students' time at KPEA, we have 88% of our original students will with us. Looking at the NYC data, that makes us feel really good about the number of students we have kept with us and what that means for our ability to deliver on promises we make to families at their kindergarten home visit.

    Of the 9 students who have left our founding class over 5 years, 6 of them moved outside of Philadelphia and by law have to be dropped from our roster. Another student left to attend an elite private school for 4th grade. The other two left for other schools in Philadelphia, for example, one that has a focus on the arts, but both families actually continue to have siblings at KIPP. We have also backfilled all of our spots, including taking in new 4th graders this year. 

    Monday, January 19, 2015

    Thoughts to my staff on MLK Day

    Every weekend I send an all-staff email to everyone at KPEA that sometimes includes some words of motivation, inspiration, or random thoughts going through my mind. Below is a lightly edited version of what I sent this weekend. 

    On this long weekend that we have in honor of Dr. King, I know that like many of you, I’ve been thinking about his legacy, recent events in our country, and our work at KIPP. On one hand, it seems so long ago that the Civil Rights movement had to fight so hard for such basic ideas as fairness under the law, equality in opportunity, and more broadly the understanding that all citizens of this country are a party to the Constitution in the same way.

    But the events of the past year have shown that those same challenges continue to define us as a country. Voting laws that are passed with the explicit desire to make it harder for Black and Latino Americans to vote are upheld by the Supreme Court even though it’s literally impossible to find more than 20-30 examples of voter fraud in the whole country over the past few decades. The head of a Hollywood studio feels comfortable joking that Barack Obama must be a big fan of Kevin Hart movies (not meant as a compliment to Obama BTW). We know all about the examples of Black men & young men barely older than children, being shot/choked to death by police without charges being filed against the officers and now we have an example of a Black police chief in Oklahoma being shot by a man 4 times when the chief came to a house to investigate a bomb threat. When I tell you that no charges were fired against the shooter, I don’t even need to tell you his race, do I? Closer to home, we know from our work with our kids and their families of countless examples of prejudice, inequality, and just plain old heartache caused by bone-grinding poverty – the cause that Dr. King was working on when he was killed.  

    We know that society is not how it should be and we all work here because we want to do our small part in making the world more just. Each day when we come to KPEA we do important work to make this world a better place, both in the sense of giving our students a great education but also in the macro sense of helping to prove what students and families in North and West Philly are capable of when they have a great school working with them. This would be more than enough, but many of us do this work in other ways in our off-hours through church groups, volunteering at mission-aligned organizations, and direct activism.

    At the same time we’re all trying to make this world a better place for our kids, we also know we need to prepare them as best as we possibly can to be successful in a world that is not yet as just as we would hope. That means character education. It means art and music. It means being surrounded by people who love them and who they love back. And it means teaching them to read, write, speak, and do math at the highest possible level.

    Our society is unfair and unjust, but at least in the aggregate, it’s sadly predictable. We know the more our students know in elementary school means they will know more in middle school, which will lead to higher ACT scores in high school. This will give them more college options and help them get into a good school where the odds are much higher that they will graduate, thus giving them a better chance at having a happy, choice-filled life. That string of causality is not destiny – students who aren’t reading well in 4th grade can catch up just like students in high school w/high ACTs aren’t guaranteed to graduate college. Like riding a sled down a hill over and over, we know from 11 years of history at KIPP Philly and 20 years of KIPP nationally that especially as kids get older, the path they are on gets dug deeper and deeper, and that forging a new path one almost impossible.

    As just one example of this, take the class of students who just graduated from KDCA (our high school) this past May and then break out the roughly 50% of that class who were KPCS (one of our middle schools) promoters in 2009. I looked at how they did on the ACT in 11th grade and compared that with their MAP percentile score in 8th grade when they were finishing up at KPCS. 100% of the students who scored above the 75th percentile in 8th grade scored above the “college ready” bar of 21 on the ACT. Even with the great education kids get at KCA, of the students who scored below the 50th percentile in 8th grade, only 2% scored a 21 or above on the ACT.

    100% vs. 2% - that’s about as drastic a difference as you can get. And make no mistake about it, those ACT scores matter. From our information on KIPP alumni in college, we know that students who scored above 21 on the ACT go to schools where +80% of first generation and/or students of color graduate. Many of our alumni who don’t get those high ACT scores end up at colleges where the odds of graduating are in the 20s and 30s percents, at best.

    So why all of these potentially depressing stats?

    <Some school specific details omitted here, but basic idea is our academic results are higher so far this year than last year.>

    To remind us all that the work we do each day matters so much because our kids aren’t going to get the 2nd/3rd/4th chances in life that more affluent peers get. Remember that stat we looked at last month that showed high school drop-outs from wealthy families were making more money as adults than college graduates who came from poor families? There is a huge difference for our kids in the future if they are reading on grade level vs. almost on grade level. It’s not right, but it’s real. We work each day to make the world better but we also know that our kids need an amazing education urgently for them to have the lives everyone who loves them wants for them. 

    This is heavy shit. There’s no getting around that what we do each day adds up over 13 years to having major impact on what our students’ lives will be like. But if this work is so important, it’s vital that we have people like you all who are so smart and dedicated doing it each day. Our results in past years and even more so this year are showing that we are putting many of our students on a different path in life that will lead to them having great options about what they want to do with their lives.

    Whether it’s community service, activism, or recharging w/friends & family, enjoy whatever you are doing today and know that when we get back on Tuesday we’re going to keep doing our small part to make the world a better place and help our kids grow up to be anything they want to be.

    Sunday, December 28, 2014

    A Podcast Everyone Founding, or Thinking About Founding a School Should be Listening To

    No, it’s not Serial. There is no unsolved mystery, cliff-hangers, or conspiracy theories. What there is in the podcast, Start Up, is the story of someone following their passion to start a small business from scratch, which is basically what it means to found your own school. The podcast follows radio producer Alex Blumberg (This American Life, Planet Money) as he sets out to create an independent podcasting company. The show is up to ten episodes and I find pretty much each one fascinating, especially because of all the parallels between what Blumberg goes through as he gets his start up off the ground and what I did in 2010 when I founded KPEA (and still do in many ways). A short list of the connections includes:
    • How difficult it is to move from being good at something (teaching/producing radio shows) to creating an organization where you lead others to do that. 
    • Thinking of a name and how you drive yourself nuts trying to come up with one that is “perfect”, only to have others think it’s awful! 
    • What happens when you are obsessed with starting something and the stress that puts on those around you. If you’re like Blumberg and me, you’re lucky to have a partner who is incredibly supportive, but even with that support it's in no way easy. 
    • Coming up with a good “elevator pitch”. You can have a general idea of what you want your school/business to be like and you can explain it in 10 min, but how can you boil it down to 30 seconds that excite a potential supporter?
    • The challenge of getting feedback from others while staying true to your core concept/values. You hear a great idea from someone else that you hadn’t originally thought of – do you change your plans to include this idea? Or would that distract you from your core idea?
    • Recruiting and investing talent in your organization when nothing exists yet of what you hope they are signing up for.   
    • Learning on the job and dealing with mistakes, because you will make them.
    • Doubt. So much doubt.

    Seriously you should listen to this - for two reasons. First, even though the context for starting a podcast company is different than starting a school, the big ideas, many detail, and most importantly, the emotional roller coaster rang very true to my experience as a KIPP founder so if you listen to this and it seems insane that someone would want to do this, you might want to rethink your plans. Secondly, it's reassuring to know that there are crazy and successful people out there in all different fields following their dreams and pulling it off. Helps with that last bullet point above.