Charter school expands its reach to elementary

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Austin American-Statesman (Texas)
By: Melissa B. Taboada
September 17, 2010

KIPP Austin opens kindergarten, will add grade each year

When KIPP Austin Public Schools' founder Jill Kolasinski looks at the 132 newly enrolled kindergartners, she sees past their toothy grins and envisions them earning a college degree.

It's a goal she has for every child who attends KIPP Austin.

She recently drove one of her first students to the airport to start her college education at Howard University in Washington.

"I can't describe what that moment meant for me as I reflect back on that first year in 2002," the year when Kolasinski founded the school locally, she said. "A promise kept."

The girl was among those whom Kolasinski calls KIPP pioneers: students who completed grades five to eight when KIPP had only one middle school in Austin. Those students had to attend non-KIPP high schools because KIPP didn't open its first high school until 2008 . But the dedication to those students -- of whom, 87 percent enrolled in college this fall -- continued long past their eighth-grade year.

The KIPP charter school academies helped the students apply to colleges, secure financial aid and prepare for college entrance exams.

KIPP has plans to expand to 10 Austin schools that will eventually serve more than 5,200 students, largely from low-income and minority families.

In August, KIPP opened its first elementary, KIPP Austin Comunidad, a dual-language school. It started with only kindergarten and will add a grade each year through fourth grade.

Kolasinski said she is thrilled the school will be able to work with students in their early years, before there is an achievement gap. Many children who enroll at KIPP come to the school two or three grade levels behind, she said.

"I envision so many things for our kindergartners and their families," she said. "Now we're going to be preventing the achievement gap. It's going to change everything with these kids. I have a lot of dreams for them. Being able to have them all the way through high school is amazing."

By the 2019-20 school year, KIPP plans to have four elementary, four middle and two high schools on at least two campuses in East Austin. KIPP, which has four schools on its property at 8509 FM 969 , is in search of a second location for its other campuses.

As an open-enrollment charter school district, KIPP gets support for its daily operations from the state but can't levy taxes. Funding for expansion comes through fundraising and various multiyear grants from organizations such as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Sooch Foundation and the Lisa and Sandy Gottesman Foundation.

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program, was founded by two teachers in Houston and the South Bronx in New York and is often championed as a charter school model. About 93 percent of its Austin-area students are from low-income families , and 99 percent are minorities.

Students enroll from throughout the Austin area and are chosen through a lottery system that is required by law because the school has a waiting list. However, under state law for charter schools, once one child is chosen, siblings are accepted, too. Enrollment this fall stands at 1,009 students; more than 340 are on the waiting list.

KIPP students have extended school hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days, and also must attend classes in the summer and on Saturdays twice a month . Teachers provide their cell phone numbers to every student and are available until at least 9 p.m. to help with homework. KIPP school district officials said such accessibility is crucial because 90 percent of the parents of KIPP students are English language learners and need extra help.

The school this year earned the highest rating, "exemplary," under the state's academic accountability system.

"This cannot be a school where a teacher can close their door and teach," said Justin Scott , principal of KIPP Austin Comunidad, the dual language elementary school. "There is no lip service to working together. We have to work together, if we're going to be successful."

At the new school, the kindergarten's motto is "Courage," and pairs of classrooms are named for a child or activist in history who demonstrated courage, including Anne Frank, César Chávez and Ruby Bridges.

Also, in keeping with KIPP's tradition in its upper-grade levels, each class is named for its teacher's college or university, a strategy that school officials hope instills the goal of a college degree.

Leticia Granados moved from Mexico with her daughter, Gabby , six years ago. She enrolled Gabby, who was a year behind and did not speak English, at KIPP in fifth grade, and by the end of that first year, KIPP had brought Gabby up to grade level and taught her English. Now, Gabby is a junior at KIPP's high school.

"I'm so grateful for all the teachers," Granados said. "They made Gabby who she is. They taught her how to study, how to learn and how to do things the right way.

"They were always there for her. That's why I admire them so much. They really do give 100 percent."

mtaboada@statesman.com; 445-3620

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