This article was originally published on LinkedIn on August 29, 2016. Click here to read the full article.
As I write this post, KIPP is opening 17 new public charter schools around the country, bringing our new total school count to 200. This is a big jump from the first Knowledge Is Power Program school that Dave Levin and I founded in Houston with 47 students 22 years ago. While reaching 200 schools isn’t all that important per se, KIPP is very proud of the thousands of teachers, principals, KIPP students, and parents that have helped us reach this milestone.
Why did KIPP decide to grow beyond Houston to become a national network of schools? Some of it had do with geography and strategy, but mainly it’s because as long as KIPP schools have unfilled waiting lists, we have an ethical and moral mandate to keep growing. Parents are knocking on the door saying, “We want a seat in your school.” Right now in many places the answer has to be, “Sorry, there’s no space.” That breaks my heart because every one of our communities’ children deserves a chance.
In Houston alone, this last year we had 14,000 kids and families express interest in attending a KIPP school. Even with our hyper growth in Houston, we only had room for 2,000 of them. That means we turned away 12,000 parents who know that education is the ticket for their children’s future, and who are looking for better school options than their zoned public school down the block.
And these parents are not just applying to KIPP; they’re searching everywhere for a place where their kids will thrive. They’re applying to other high performing public charters and magnet schools, they’re exploring private schools (which are mostly unaffordable), and they’re seeking a spot in parochial schools. But because most of these efforts are dead ends, it means we as a society are saying, “We know you have these hopes and aspirations for your children, but the inn is full.”
Thinking of these parents makes it hard for me to sleep at night. That’s why KIPP has to grow and open more schools.
But we realize that opening a few more KIPP schools is not going to shorten the wait list. As long as there is a gap in outcomes between KIPP students and their peers in district schools, the demand will continue to grow. I’ve been asked if KIPP should just basically take over all the schools in Houston and become the ‘new monopoly.’ The answer is: No. KIPP exists to be a high quality public school option for families, but not the only option.
The more interesting question is, “How much demand must there be for KIPP and other high quality school options before school systems have no choice but to change their practices and reach better outcomes, beyond the standards set by state and federal governments?” In other words, “How can KIPP help other schools get better so kids and families stop wanting to come?”
That’s why we are working now to share ideas to help bridge the gap between KIPP and traditional district public schools. We recently launched a initiative – called Beyond KIPP – where we are making all of KIPP’s practices – including principal and teacher training – available to the public. If we can help other local schools improve to the point where kids and parents are happy there, we consider that ‘mission accomplished’ for KIPP.
Our ideal scenario for the future is that KIPP continues to do a great job, and our colleagues in district schools are also helping children reach their full potential. I think it’s possible to find an equilibrium point where kids and families are satisfied, and both public charters and district schools provide support and accountability for each other.
And I’m not the only charter school founder that feels this intense obligation to help as many children as we can. The leaders of YES Prep in Houston, Achievement First in Connecticut and New York, Noble Street College Prep in Chicago, and countless others all are motived to simultaneously grow the size of our networks and build bridges with the larger public school system.
You can read more about other charter school leaders (including KIPP’s co-founder Dave Levin) in a new e-book by Richard Whitmire called “The Founders,” published by education news site called The74. Through video interviews and other interactive media, Richard shares reflections from some of my favorite people in the charter school world. You’ll find we agree on the need to keep growing and to help other schools integrate some our best practices into more classrooms across the country. After all, each of our kids deserves no less than the best.