believe it or not

Jay Mathews' seven myths about the KIPP charter schools

Jay Mathews' new book on KIPP challenges some popular ideas about the schools.
Jay Mathews’ new book on KIPP challenges the truth of some popular ideas about the school.

I’m working on a review of Jay Mathews’ new book about the KIPP charter school network, which I just devoured over the weekend. (Preview of my thoughts: Extremely readable, honest, and — best of all — contains excellent advice for how to force Dave Levin to return your phone calls. Apparently one must call twice in fast succession.)

While I finish that up, here’s an executive summary of the book’s take-aways according to Mathews, a list of seven myths about KIPP. Mathews shared the list at a book talk at Education Sector, the Washington D.C. think tank. You can listen to the talk here.

1. KIPP is militaristic. Mathews’ account describes schools that are strict about discipline, often denying privileges like annual trips to students who do not behave or perform well academically. But he concludes that teachers are also warm and supportive. The chants KIPP is famous for, by Mathews’ account, are more like songs shared around a camp fire than grunted military rites.

2. KIPP’s curriculum is characterized by “drill and kill.” Work Hard. Be Nice. tells the story of a 25-year-old teacher in D.C. who asked to use a different math curriculum than the one Levin, a math teacher, favors, and then won a teaching award for her results. Every KIPP school, Mathews writes, gets to pick its own teachers and curriculum.

3. “KIPP is just a lot of white people telling black people what to do,” is the next conception Mathews declared a myth. The book describes the major role played by two non-white educators who mentored Levin and Feinberg early on: Rafe Esquith and Harriet Ball, who came up with the characteristic chants that help students memorize math facts. “KIPP started with a black person telling two white people what to do,” Mathews said.

4- “KIPP always brags about how they are saving the inner-city,” is the next myth. “They don’t believe they are saving the inner city and they almost never say that,” Mathews said. “It is us starry-eyed education writers who sometimes get sloppy and make it seem like the KIPP people are bragging.”

5- KIPP resists outside analysis. “This is the most studied charter school network there ever was,” Mathews said, citing an ongoing randomized sample study by Mathematica, annual reports on the national network’s progress, and a recent report by Jeff Henig at Columbia that summarized the findings of seven studies.

6- KIPP kicks out misbehaving or low-performing students. The book describes student attrition that stems from parents who do not want their children to continue with the rigorous, time-consuming demands — not children pushed out by their teachers.

7 – KIPP students come from families that are more active in their lives than the families of traditional public school students. Mathews says the case on this so-called “creaming” effect is so far inconclusive. Though some data from the Bronx and Baltimore suggest students arrive with more family support, other data provided by KIPP disputes that conclusion. Mathews also argues that the reverse argument is possible. “KIPP I think draws some lazy parents who like having a free afternoon daycare,” he said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.