Oklahoma City’s KIPP Academy outperforms eighth graders in every other public school in the state’s largest system

At 1900 N.E. 10 Street, amid rows of low income neighborhood blocks with blight and abandoned buildings, there is a little brown school building. When school is in session, it is filled with students from homes just like one would expect: poor families, kids with parents in prison, adults who are addicted to drugs, neglectful, absent in their kids’ lives. Some have ceded their parenting to grandparents. These are proven obstacles to student achievement.

The building’s school on the first floor, F.D. Moon Academy, is now one of Oklahoma City’s most troubled elementary schools. Federal law has compelled the district to seize control and turn it around. But go upstairs to the second floor, and you will find irony incarnate.

On that second floor, there are the same kinds of kids from the same backgrounds. But this is (Knowledge is Power Program) KIPP Reach Academy, a charter school. It is the highest achieving middle school in the Oklahoma City Public School District, including those which can, critics say, “cherry-pick” students.

KIPP Reach is a tuition-free, open-enrolment, college preparatory middle school serving 277 underserved students primarily living in neighborhoods near Martin Luther King and NE 10 St. 

Seventy-nine percent of students at KIPP are African-American, and 81 percent qualify for federally-subsidized meals. The school operates from 7:25 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Classes are also held once monthly on Saturdays and for an extra two weeks in the summer.

In the most recently reported year, 2009-2010, KIPP students reached 100 percent proficiency in reading and math, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. The school’s science scores were close behind.

KIPP Principal/Oklahoma City founder Tracy McDaniel believes reading problems are pervasive in schools because teachers are teaching words, not retention and comprehension. Reading is the building block of all successful learning for a child, he believes. 

“We teach reading strategies. Research will tell you that if you teach them at their level, and teach them reading strategies, they will learn,” McDaniel said.

The focus on reading is so intensive, that after three years, students from KIPP intuitively practice several hundred strategies that have given them great reading comprehension and retention.

What is KIPP’s most potent weapon? Follow-through. It trains administrators rigorously. They, in turn, train the teachers rigorously. The students benefit, and the results amaze.

Forty-five students from KIPP Reach’s 8th grade class of 2007 are receiving high school diplomas this spring. Eighty percent of these students have been accepted to two- or four-year colleges, including Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, University of Central Oklahoma, and Hendrix College. Most will be the first in their families to attend college.

Several students now are headed into freshman high school classes at prestigious private schools such as Casady in north Oklahoma City, and elite boarding schools across the nation. McDaniel is asked repeatedly what makes KIPP work so spectacularly. Each time, he gives more or less the same answer. It is a simple one.

A slogan adorns the wall, and it captures part of the answer: “Work hard. Be nice.” He and the teachers at KIPP make that happen. Teachers take phone calls when a student needs their guidance on any given night. 

Critics argue McDaniel has some kind of special parents aboard. McDaniel has been accused of recruiting special parents, special kids. He has families with siblings at F.D. Moon, so that does not seem true. He also has families whose students dislike the rigor and leave his school.

McDaniel says of the assertions he somehow “chooses” kids and parents from the poorest demographic in Oklahoma City: “That’s not giving the credit to the teachers, or the students.”

Oklahoma City Superintendent Karl Springer says he is implementing rigorous programs downstairs at Moon. When Springer’s staff explained the greater rigor and professional teacher development that would now be expected at Moon, many teachers just quit.

Teacher’s union members are discouraged at KIPP; they just aren’t interested, McDaniel said. KIPP has reached out to Oklahoma City school district leadership and his efforts have been received cordially. No accord has emerged yet, but there is dialogue.

“Karl Springer is a good man and is good about reaching out to charters,” McDaniel said. “We are talking about working with him with F.D. Moon.” 

Each summer, KIPP administrators and educators attend a prestigious reading education program at the University of Columbia every summer. The balance of the summer is spent planning for the next year and fund-raising to fill out the school’s slender budget. Chesapeake Energy and the Inasmuch Foundation are substantial supporters.

KIPP Reach, now in its 10th year, is part of a national network of 99 public schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. With a longer school day and year, KIPP students are in classes 50 percent more time than traditional public school children. To date, over 85 percent of students who have completed 8th grade at KIPP have matriculated to college.

As McDaniel tells it, KIPP Reach prepares students for academic success and success in life by providing a rigorous college prep academic curriculum, more time on task, high expectations for all of students and strong character education to build the skills and knowledge necessary for success in school and life.

KIPP, a nationwide program founded by two educators, now boasts 99 sites. The most dramatic change has occurred in Houston school district, where 16 KIPP schools have been established. For now, in the depth of summer, downstairs at F.D. Moon, the halls are eerily dark and quiet. 

If KIPP has proven anything it is this: With the right tools and support, all students can learn. Before long, the halls will be noisy and brighter, as students return for the city system’s new continuing learning schooling calendar. It is clear, at least to some observers: F.D. Moon students are not failing, they have been failed. 

To learn more, visit www.kippreach.org or Alexis Carter-Black, (405) 425-4622 or acblack@kippreach.org
Editor’s Note: Stacy Martin is a researcher and staff writer for CapitolBeatOK. She is also editor of The City Sentinel, where portions of this story were first printed this week.