KIPP Schools: The Exception to the Rule

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In Kahlenberg and Potter’s A Smarter Charter, the authors systematically outline the disintegration of Albert Shanker’s original vision of charter schools, and present a picture of what they really look like today. One of the most salient tenets in Shanker’s proposal for the foundation of charters emphasized the importance of integrating students across all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in order to promote social mobility, cohesion, and our shared American identity. The benefits of this social integration were backed up by research finding that “children from socioeconomically deprived families do better academically when they are integrated with children of higher socioeconomic status and better-educated families” (9).  Moreover, studies have also found a relationship between racial integration in schools and the production of tolerant, unprejudiced adults (55). Despite the evidence of the effectiveness of socially integrated school populations, charter schools have, on average, proven to be even more economically and racially segregated than traditional public schools.

What led to this break from Shanker’s groundbreaking conception of desegregated charter schools? Charter school operators, whose primary aim is to run schools that bring students better education than their public school counterparts, seem to define doing a “better job” as bringing the benefits of their schools to students who are at-risk. The attention is then placed on helping at-risk students (low-income and minority), pulling focus away from the idea of actually integrating these students into school populations with varying degrees of race and socioeconomic standing. With all the given literature advancing the notion that integrated schools will increase academic performance as well as encourage tolerance in its students, the creation of charter schools catering to at-risk students seems to be a set up for underachievement. However, there is one organization of charter schools that has been able to fight the stereotype and service high-poverty, minority students while maintaining academic achievement.

KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, is a network of charter schools that serves more than 86% of students from low-income families and 95% of students who identify as African American or Latino (78). While based on these numbers KIPP appears to cater to an isolated population of low-income and minority students, these students have academically performed better than any other program servicing low-income children (78). KIPP schools embrace longer school days, more homework, and a demanding set of expectations, which sets these schools apart from other low-income serving public and charter schools. These features create a self-selected student population made of not the “typical low-income student, but rather a subset fortunate enough to have striving parents” to inspire motivation in their kids (79).

While KIPP is one example where an almost entirely racially and economically isolated charter school has produced academic success, the “tough love” and self-selection that weeds out lower achievers provides a skewed image of the school. Except for KIPP schools, charter schools should realize the truth and effectiveness in Shanker’s original vision of charters, where the integration of all kinds of students will ultimately lead to increased academic performance.