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KIPP Looking to Expand Across the River, But No Bridge Yet

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 20 Jan 2012 01:28pm | comments
Photo by Leave No Trace

Mississippi is one of ten states without charter schools.  But that is changing. According to 2010 legislation, schools that have been labeled as failing three consecutive years can be taken over as charter schools.  The three years since the legislation passed will expire next year, opening the door.   MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson explains one national charter school organization is watching the state in preparation for moving in, but won't start packing unless state lawmakers scrap the 2010 law in favor of new charter policy this legislative session.

KIPP is the Coca-Cola of charter schools.  It's a brand name and it doesn’t cost more than any other public school, because, like all charter schools, KIPP schools are public schools. KIPP, short for Knowledge is Power Program, starts new public schools in low-income, often majority minority areas like East LA, Westside Chicago, Intercity Memphis and – more close to home – in the Arkansas Delta.

Le: Take a look at that last part and repeat after me. (Music starts) Open up your mind and see like me.

Class: Open up your mind and see like me.

Kristen Le is a music teacher for KIPP Delta - a charter school organization looking to expand into Mississippi if charter-school law changes. 

Le: Here’s where it gets different right?  (Music starts) The sky is yours.

Class: The sky is yours.

In this lesson, Le is using the music-concepts rhythm and time signature to challenge her students’ vocabulary, math and critical thinking skills. Le says KIPP Delta is unique from other public schools in the area because the staff is able to try new approaches to learning.

Le: So with time signature we’ve been doing a lot of math. They have basically been practicing algebra.

Now KIPP is not a music-based school.  This is just one class that some students schedule in-between the staples such as science, math, and English.  So it wasn't music that brought Le to the Delta, it was her attraction to the KIPP philosophy that every child, rich or poor, will learn.  She says the problem with traditional public schools is that their learning models only work for only some kids.

Le: I think that works great for some people, less great for others and are a complete disaster for others.

Charter school opponents say the same thing could be said about charter schools - success varies nationally, sometimes drastically.  Some charter schools have found great success, but not all new approaches work and many other charter schools fail.

Mississippi lawmakers know this.

Thigpen: The senate would pass charter school bills and they would die in the house.

Forrest Thigpen has pushed for charter schools to a leery legislature for more than a decade. He is President of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy - a lobbying group that is currently trying to get the state to expand charter school law.

Thigpen: And all the questions and controversy that may surround charter schools… this is not a new issue.

When the Mississippi legislature looks at charter school law this year, policy advocates like Thigpen say the trick will be to protect kids from being guinea pigs while still crafting parameters that experienced charter school organizations such as KIPP find appealing.

Shirey:  It’s not about getting everything we want.

Scott Shirey is Executive Director of KIPP Delta.  Shirey and the KIPP team are not lobbying for changes in charter school law, but they'd be happy to see parameters be redefined.   Shirey says the sweet spot lies somewhere between strict accountability rules and the freedom to operate with more autonomy than traditional public schools.

Shirey:  We are 100% for accountability.  I mean we want rigid accountability and want to be held accountable for our performance.  So strict in that sense is a good thing.

But not strict in terms of when, where and how.

Shirey:  The point of our existence is to show what students are really capable of accomplishing.  If the parameters are too tight then that limits our ability to do that.

Under current law, KIPP couldn't start from scratch as they did for each school in Arkansas.  They'd have to take over a public school labeled as failing three years in a row and then only if parents voted to let them in.   KIPP finds these parameters untenable.  But many Mississippi lawmakers have  promised to redraft charter school law this year, giving charter school organizations in the region, big or small, reason to keep watching.

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

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Photo by Leave No Trace


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