Sunday, July 06, 2008

KIPP Vote Tarnishes Luster On Cash Era Beginning

Some days, it seems like “Every Child, Every Day, College Bound” isn’t the most appropriate operating motto for Memphis City Schools.

Instead, Pogo’s immortal words might seem more apt: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

That seemed especially true last Monday when members of the Board of Commissioners were euphoric about ushering in a new era with a new superintendent, they still managed to engage in another example of old thinking.

In a vote that was unanimous in its political extortion, the Board of Commissioners jacked up the lease on the KIPP DIAMOND Academy from $50,000 a year to just under $300,000 a year. The circular logic, pandering rhetoric and political opportunism as symbolized by the educational malpractice of Dr. Jeff Warren at that meeting were nothing short of stupefying.

They Are You

After all, it’s just astonishing to us that a school that is in fact part of Memphis City Schools should have to pay rent at all.

According to the customer service office of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, that district does not charge rent to its charters, requiring them to pay direct operating expenses. Meanwhile, new Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has called for more charter schools in his city, and former superintendent Pedro Garcia has been strongly criticized for not doing more to support them.

KIPP came to Memphis in 2003 under a contract with the Memphis City School System. Since opening its doors at the Cypress Middle School building north of Rhodes college, KIPP has received a great deal of attention, being heralded for its longer school days, Saturday and Summer schools, and its stated mission of sending kids (almost all low-income) to competitive high schools and four-year colleges.

And by most accounts, the school is delivering on its promise to kids and their families.

Delivering Results

According to results of the Stanford 10, a nationally normed achievement test taken by KIPP DIAMOND Academy students annually, fifth graders entering KIPP in the fall of 2007 were outperforming only 18 percent of students nationally in reading. By the end of the school year, however, KIPP DIAMOND’s fifth graders were outperforming 42 percent of the national norm group in reading.

In mathematics, the scores climbed from the 21st to 49th percentile; in language arts, the scores rose from the 17th to 53rd percentile; in science, the scores jumped from the 17th to 44th percentile; and in social studies, the scores rose from the 19th to 51st percentile. Nationally, more than 80 percent of the students from KIPP schools attend college while fewer than one in five low-income students typically do.

But proving that often in the city district, no good deed goes unpunished, KIPP Academy – like other charters in Memphis City Schools – is treated as an alien virus that must be attacked and destroyed. On their best days, city school officials give charter schools lip service, and on the worst, they treat them like pariahs.

KIPP became a charter school this year and immediately ran into problems with the district. The school, saddled by a financially straining collective bargaining agreement and too much bureaucratic red-tape, decided to convert to a public charter school last December (joining all the other KIPP schools in the country, which are charters).

NRA Envy

Public charter schools have been frequent subjects for much debate over the past 15 years, and frequent objects of broad knee-jerk screeds by academicians who see everything that doesn’t originate within the hallowed halls of public education as the enemy.

Here, though, it all seems to ignore the fact that Memphis charters are in fact part of Memphis City Schools. They are free, publicly-funded schools that are granted more autonomy in exchange for agreements to seek higher academic gains. This autonomy allows charters to hire and fire principals and teachers and implement their own models for student achievement.

So, now, after a productive, long-term partnership with the Memphis school system, KIPP becomes a charter school and finds the unwelcome mat put out for it at the Avery mother ship. In the school board meeting a week ago, Memphis City Schools staffers admitted that the actual cost of KIPP’s facility is $50,000, and yet, the Board – using the specious market value logic of staff – set rent at $280,000. We’ll believe that it’s real market value when the district can demonstrate the demand which is essential to setting that rental amount.

Most ironically of all, Memphis City Schools has punished a school from which it directly benefits. Under No Child Left Behind laws, charter test scores are counted with city schools for accountability, and in this way, schools like KIPP help prop up the ailing public school system’s academic assessments.

Fundamental Fairness

Fair is fair. If the school board wants to treat charters as alien, they should also forego the use of their test results for their own benefit when it improves the academic achievement for the city district under No Child Left Behind’s AYP (Average Yearly Progress) ratings.

While many cities are offering incentives like $1 a year facilities to recruit KIPP as part of their urban education experiments, Memphis seems once again to shun anything that’s not a creation of the district itself.

Sometimes, it seems that district officials — and the teachers union in particular — fear that the autonomy given to charters to hire their own teachers and principals and the accountability built into the schools could infect the established educational order of things even though only 2,700 of the district's 115,000 students attend charter schools.

Their results are even more impressive considering that the charter schools are being shortchanged. State law says students in charter schools will get the same amount of public money spent on them as other students; however, calculations by Memphis City Schools result in payments that are about 25 percent less.

What About The Children

None of us are suggesting that charter schools are the magic answer to all that ails Memphis City Schools, but we are suggesting that our district should encourage experiments on a variety of fronts to find out what works best and what can be transplanted to the district at large.

Sadly, in the debate about jacking up the rent of KIPP Academy, it was all about old school politics. No one talked about the few hundred students whose parents chose the school as their children’s best avenue to the future. We’re unaware of one board or staff member who bothered to ask what the impact the unconscionable hike in rent may have on the education of the kids there - fewer teachers, fewer field trips, or fewer hours.

And that was the most telling lesson of all.


Zippy the giver said...

It starts.
It sounds like MCS would run BETTER with a 25% budget cut across the board.
I'm for it.
Kipp has something that MCS does not posess, a mutually agreed upon direction agreed upon by all parties involved all the way to the individual students.
MCS has staff directions, admin directions, teacher directions, union directions, board directions, students going all directions, and superintendent directions and none of them agree on one dang thing.
So, they end up looking out for their own butt cheeks.
The students come dead last no matter what and that is the one thing that shows up most prominently.
I'm sure we are too early to comment and don't have the full story, but, this looks as dunderheaded as usual right now.

Harvey said...

I can't help but wonder if this situation, which should boil our collective blood, is not fallout from the lack of funds provided by the City Council to the School Board. Is it legal for the City Council to pick up the tab for Kipp? I know that is sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul, but if we can't depend on the School Board to make the right move and we need Kipp badly, not just for the current schools, but for other future Kipp Academies in Memphis, I wonder if the Council couldn't make things right for the Academy. Just a thought.

Kay Brooks said...

I think the Nashville schools' customer service person was wrong (it's happened before). Two years ago when I was on the BOE we were discussing the lease contract for KIPP here. I objected to the condition of the building and the fact that MNPS, as landlord, didn't have to maintain the building (AC was the immediate problem). Another BOE member stated that it was a standard commercial contract. Period. No sympathy for the children at all.

Zippy the giver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zippy the giver said...

Wow, I am blown away by the stupidity of a city school system that recieves most of it's funding fromthe state to ever engage in this kind of behavior as adults. To treat the school as a commercial lease is preposterous yet true. It's like they don't get the context in which it was rented. Well, they've outed themselves as not only "the problem" but the enemy as well.
It sounds like the MCS funding money is being stolen back BY MCS through RENT. Is it going to charge ALL public schools in it's own system RENT? When did MCS decide it had a Landlord authority? What exact department is that and who is accountable, or, should I say CULPABLE?
I know where corporal punishment should start now.
Definitely, still rolls downhill.

Anonymous said...

Excellent summary of events!!

Ed reformer said...

It was an unfortunate example of bizarre policy making - but not uncommon.

The scant attention placed on education success stories (by mainstream media) outside of Avery allows these types of "bully" antics to go on. Most of our citizenry are unaware of some public schools getting great results (charter or otherwise). But the fact is, most of the highest-performing schools here in Memphis and nationally tend to be charters because they are, by and large, free from a bureacracratic system that was designed as a compliance system, not a system for educating kids.

But though they're free from most of the redtape, KIPP and other charters are Memphis City Schools' public schools, free of charge, educating the students (first come, first-served)in the communities in which the school resides. And to SmartCity's point, the district is benefitting from the high test scores. STAR Academy, a K-5 charter in North Memphis, received one of the top awards this year by the TN Dept of Education. Why not embrace this success? Why not use this as an opportunity to build an ally and trumpet this as a success of Memphis City Schools, not just charter schools? Hopefully, Cash will be opportunistic and view KIPP and other good school models as a partner, rather than myopically treating them as a few extra bucks to try to suck back into the central office.

Other cities are doing so. The National KIPP Foundation, in a savvy business-like manner, began a city competition last year to further expand its program nation-wide. Not surprisingly – city leaders are lining up. Witnessing the soaring achievements of KIPP in Houston and New York, city leaders around the country are throwing out the red carpet for KIPP - to bring hope back to their inner core. Columbus, OH and St. Louis were the lucky lottery winners in 2008 and their kids will reap enormous benefits. While most cities are battling to attract KIPP with such things as $1/yr facilities and the like, Memphis is doing the opposite. What a pity.

Louise said...

Great column.

But, you should know that the staff was directed by the Board and Superintendent Johnson (policy not changed under Ward) to lease all facilities at "market rent" The staff did not agree to using the guidelines in all cases, but the die was cast. The best they could do was to use a comparable industrial rent in the low income neighborhoods preferred by both KIPP Academy and Promise Academy.

This applies to all outside entities from neighborhood associations to daycares. New leases are using these guidelines. Most old leases or questionable handshake agreements from olden days have not as yet been renegotiated. Since no one has a definitive list of these leases, it may take years to straighten it out. The planning staff is attempting to right the system, but it's an uphill battle.

And, by the way, some of these existing leases are highly political leading one to wonder if they may be given preferential treatment. Some are even for profit entities who pay little or no rent for facilities.

That said, it is still baffling as to why MCS continues to fight the charter movement, rather than embracing it as a positive force in our educational system and a most needed adjunct to MCS's optional schools and specialized programs.

Zippy the giver said...

Kipp isn't one of them. I wonder what the list of for profit entities leasing from MCS would look like, could you supply it?

Anonymous said...

Speaking of school reform, have you all been following the progress of the teacher "apprenticeship" reform?

This seems like one of a few simple, big, and data-driven changes that could deliver some real long term impact.