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VOL. 127 | NO. 83 | Friday, April 27, 2012

Ambitious Educators

KIPP Memphis embarks on massive expansion plan

By Aisling Maki

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KIPP Memphis, which currently educates 500 students in grades five through nine at two schools, has embarked on an ambitious expansion plan that will include opening 10 collegiate schools educating roughly 4,500 students in North and South Memphis by 2016.

Jenna Molinski, fifth-grade reading teacher, checks for understanding. At KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle, students take reading in addition to English language arts. 

(Courtesy of KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools)

“We’re currently operating two schools, and we definitely felt like we needed to broaden our impact based on the need here in Memphis,” said KIPP Memphis executive director Jamal McCall.

KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) currently operates a middle and high school, and in late summer will open a second middle school as well as its first elementary school, with new schools slated to open at the start of each school year through 2016.

When the expansion is complete, KIPP will have two elementary, two middle and one high school in North Memphis, each with a counterpart in South Memphis.

KIPP is also partnering with Porter-Leath – a Memphis nonprofit organization serving at-risk children and families – to open a preschool inside KIPP’s collegiate middle school at 230 Henry Ave. Porter-Leath employees, who will prepare 100 4-year-olds for kindergarten, will staff the preschool, slated to open in August.

KIPP Memphis is affiliated with a national network of free charter schools, founded in Texas in 1994, that focuses on placing economically disadvantaged students on the path to college. There are currently about 100 KIPP schools in 20 states and Washington. Although enrollment is open to all children, 80 to 90 percent of students served by KIPP are from underserved, under-resourced or low-performing schools, and 93 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Among the aspects KIPP says sets its model apart from other schools are high expectations, a focus on personal responsibility and results, and parental and student commitment – with each stakeholder required to sign a “Commitment to Excellence” contract that ensures they will do whatever it takes to help every student learn and succeed.

KIPP also has a longer school year, as well as extended school days that last from 7:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., giving students more time in the classroom to prepare them for competitive high schools and colleges, as well as expose them to a diversity of extracurricular experiences.

KIPP Memphis opened its first school, KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School, formerly KIPP Diamond Academy, in 2002 north of Downtown.

The school was ranked as the third-highest performing public middle school in Tennessee for academic growth from 2008 to 2010, and data showed that in just two years, KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle School students made sizable gains in reading and math improvement.

In addition, KIPP Memphis says its students outperformed other district students in 75 percent of tested subjects.

At the start of the 2011-2012 school year KIPP opened its collegiate high school – which shares the Henry Avenue facilities with the middle school – with an inaugural ninth-grade class of 100 students.

KIPP is now preparing to open a second middle school with 100 fifth graders, as well as its first elementary school with 100 kindergarteners.

“I think we’re in a great place just to expand on what’s already been happening with KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools,” said Andy Bobowski, who will lead the new middle school as principal. “We’ve obviously seen quite a bit of success with KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle. We’ve had the opportunity to serve 400 students for the last 10 years with that school, and now we’re just excited to be able to open up a second middle school. We’ll start with the fifth grade and we’ll add 100 students pretty much every year. I think that’s just another opportunity to expand our impact.”

Bobowski is a Teach for America alumnus who built strong community relationships during his tenure. His school’s model is unique in its commitment to foreign language; students are required to take Spanish starting in the fifth grade.

As part of the school’s enrollment outreach, Bobowski has been going door to door – often accompanied by a current KIPP parent – in underserved neighborhoods, telling parents about KIPP’s unique educational program.

Also canvassing the community in an effort to recruit students is principal Grace Williams, another alumna of Teach For America, who will lead the city’s first KIPP elementary school.

KIPP students typically enter middle school in fifth grade at two to three years below grade level. Leaders predict that Memphis Collegiate Elementary School’s inaugural kindergarten students will perform above grade level by the time they enter fifth grade.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity for us and for the students and families we’ll serve,” Williams said. “I went to college here in Memphis at Rhodes, so doing something exciting to help education in Memphis is something that’s a close personal passion of mine. I’m excited to be part of something that’s so positive for students in Memphis.”

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