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National Charter School Chain Favored by House Speaker Heads For Miami, Amid Performance Concerns

KIPP Jacksonville Facebook page
Shown here is a gymnasium on the Jacksonville campus of the national charter-school network KIPP. The academic struggles there have given local leaders pause on a plan to establish a new school in Liberty City.

A national charter school chain that focuses on preparing disadvantaged kids for college is poised to open a new location in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood this fall.

But before plans for the new school could move forward, the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation first had to overcome local leaders’ concerns about the network’s lackluster performance in Jacksonville,  the only other place in Florida where it has established a presence.

KIPP — which stands for Knowledge is Power Program — is a nonprofit that runs more than 200 schools nationwide, including three in Jacksonville. KIPP schools  share a common educational model: School days are longer, principals have more autonomy to make decisions and students get instruction in character development as well as academic subjects. Also, counselors work to help kids “to and through college,” staying in touch with graduates throughout their college careers in hopes of helping them finish.

KIPP opened a middle school in Jacksonville in 2010 and it earned an F-rating in its first year. Its grade has fluctuated since but currently stands at a B.

Further, one of the two KIPP elementary schools in Jacksonville is now on the state’s list of 300 lowest performers after receiving a D in 2016 and a C last year. That designation triggers special interventions under state law, chiefly a mandated extra hour of reading instruction every day.

Credit C.M. Guerrero / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho says he expects KIPP's new school in Miami to perform better than the ones in Jacksonville have.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and members of the school board needed convincing that a KIPP location in Miami would mirror the network’s success in other places, not its struggles in Jacksonville.

“My expectation for KIPP Miami is one that needs to be wildly different from what we have seen in Jacksonville,” Carvalho said.

KIPP’s move to Miami comes at an especially fraught moment in the political fight over charter schools in Florida.

Powerful Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran — who is expected to run for governor — has repeatedly lamented that KIPP and other national charter firms have such a small presence in the third-most populous state.

Last year, he successfully pushed for a new law to try to change that. His signature proposal, dubbed “schools of hope,” was included in a larger bill that passed by only one vote in the moderate state Senate and drew virtually no support from Democrats. Since, more than a dozen school districts have challenged the law in court.

Jacksonville struggles hamper Miami beginning

As Carvalho worked to persuade school board members to approve the local project, he sought to create distance between a KIPP school here and the existing charters in Jacksonville.

During a late-November school board committee meeting, he said the national KIPP network was “embracing Miami as its flagship school” in Florida. At the full board meeting a week later, he promised the Liberty City location would be “the real deal” and “define KIPP in Florida,” as opposed to the schools in Duval County, where Jacksonville is located.

“Duval was an experiment that faced significant obstacles and challenges, and everybody recognizes that,” Carvalho told school board members. The Jacksonville schools are “not necessarily under the control of the KIPP organization that's now deploying its resources and its long-term plan to Miami.

“The model that's going to be implemented, deployed, seen in Miami is a true KIPP model, more aligned with the founders’ vision for KIPP,” he said. “We would not look to Duval County for a replication of that model. We would look to more experienced sites.”

A spokesman for the KIPP Foundation countered some of Carvalho’s statements, stressing the Jacksonville and Miami locations will be “equally valued members” of the network.

“We stand with our KIPP Jacksonville schools 100 percent,” said Steve Mancini, KIPP’s director of public affairs.

He defended the performance of that branch, noting the middle school’s current B grade is better than most other public schools in the same poor area of Jacksonville. The school has a 300-family waiting list and an award-winning band, he said.

Credit KIPP Jacksonville Facebook page
A KIPP school building in Jacksonville is shown here.

Mancini disputed Carvalho’s suggestion that there’s a disconnect between KIPP national and the Jacksonville schools. He said the network oversees the Jacksonville branch just like it does the hundreds of other schools it runs elsewhere in the country.

And as for purported differences in the “model,” he stressed: “KIPP schools are all based on the same approach.

“So a KIPP school in Jacksonville, a KIPP school in New Jersey, a KIPP school in Los Angeles are all based on the same idea,” Mancini said.

Like Carvalho, school board member Steve Gallon III needed reassurance that KIPP’s Miami school would perform better than the ones in Jacksonville.

“When KIPP made the proposition to come to Miami-Dade County Public Schools, their track record in the state of Florida, as reflected in Duval County, was not overwhelming," Gallon said.

Gallon formerly served as a school district superintendent in New Jersey, and he had admired KIPP’s results in Newark and Camden. KIPP has operated schools in that state since 2002.

“So I asked … What was different? What happened in Duval County?” Gallon said.

While defending KIPP Jacksonville, Mancini said the network did make mistakes in those schools’ early days that it would not repeat in Miami.

“When KIPP Jacksonville first started, we did not give them the support in getting the new school off the ground in a way that we should have,” Mancini said. “We at KIPP acknowledge that we could have done more to set the Jacksonville school up for success, and we acknowledge that they stumbled in early years.

“But they also made great progress,” he said.

There’s some political context to consider: KIPP founded its Jacksonville branch with the monetary support of a prominent Republican donor who was later appointed to the state Board of Education, a powerful panel that regulates K-12 public schools and community college statewide.

Jacksonville marketing executive Gary Chartrand donated $1 million to help bring KIPP to northeast Florida. Chartrand is now chair of KIPP Jacksonville’s local governing board.

Chartrand has been a reliable donor to Republican candidates, including Gov. Rick Scott. The governor appointed Chartrand to the Board of Education in 2011, and at one point, he was its chair. He has been an outspoken supporter of charter schools on the board.

Last year, Scott’s appointed education commissioner, Pam Stewart, sent text messages to staff accusing Chartrand and the schools' then-executive director of using misleading data to inflate KIPP Jacksonville students’ test scores in private communications. The schools' leader, Tom Majdanics, has since left. WLRN requested an interview with KIPP Jacksonville's new executive director, Jennifer Brown; our inquiries were routed to the national foundation.

Coming soon: KIPP Miami Sunrise Academy

There are two major differences between how KIPP Jacksonville was founded and how the Miami branch will be.

The location here will be run in partnership with the Miami school district, supported by state grant funding that aims to foster collaboration between Florida school districts and charter school networks that have demonstrated success in other places.

“It is a true partnership. It is not simply a contract,” Carvalho said. “Therein lies the biggest difference.”

The details of the relationship are not yet set in stone, but sharing space will be a central tenet. KIPP Miami Sunrise Academy will “co-locate” with the existing Poinciana Park Elementary School, paying $1 per year in rent. In exchange, KIPP will open up its trainings to district teachers.

Some school board members questioned the idea of two schools residing in the same building. They cited concerns that the charter could be renovated or better maintained than the traditional public school, creating a stark symbol of inequity.

Carvalho stressed he was aggressive during negotiations with KIPP in ensuring that any improvements the organization made to its side of the school would benefit all students in the building. The lease makes no mention of such an agreement. In an e-mail, the district’s chief communications officer, Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, said KIPP has made a “verbal commitment.”

Carvalho has said KIPP hopes to grow its presence here after establishing the first school.

The other major difference between KIPP Jacksonville and the new Miami school: Administrators here will be coached by leaders of the long-established KIPP New Jersey schools.

KIPP runs 11 schools in Newark and Camden, enrolling more than 5,000 students. Most of the kids are black and Latino, and nearly all of them are economically disadvantaged. KIPP intentionally serves low-income communities where traditional public schools have struggled, in hopes of providing enhanced opportunities for kids who would be less likely to attend college otherwise.

Credit KIPP New Jersey Facebook page
A hallway in one of KIPP's New Jersey schools is shown here.

KIPP's eight Newark schools demonstrate impressive results, according to a WLRN review of New Jersey Department of Education data. Consistently, students pass state English and math exams at higher rates than their peers in the city’s traditional public schools — in some cases, the rates are 10 or more percentage points higher. In many grades and subjects, students’ proficiency nears statewide averages, while other schools with similar demographics often lag behind.

In 2015-16, the state reported 83 percent of KIPP’s Newark graduates were in college 16 months after finishing high school — a rate higher than New Jersey’s average. And the schools’ dropout rate is lower than the state’s.

KIPP’s three Camden schools, which are newer, also outperform the public schools in that city, although the charters’ test scores are far lower than statewide averages.

Students at KIPP’s New Jersey schools make more academic progress on average than their peers statewide. And KIPP leaders say 73 percent of the schools’ eighth grade graduates eventually go to college.

There are a few alarming statistics, though. Nearly 20 percent of students at the schools in Newark and Camden are chronically absent. Also, in Camden — where there’s one KIPP elementary school and two middle schools — 34 percent of students were suspended one or more times during the 2015-16 school year.

(It’s difficult to compare the schools’ absenteeism and suspension rates to those of surrounding school districts because New Jersey does not publish district-wide statistics on those indicators, according to a spokesman for the state’s education department.)

Representatives from KIPP New Jersey will come here to help the Liberty City school get started. In the meantime, KIPP Miami Sunrise Academy’s incoming principal has been working in New Jersey schools, including a temporary stint as principal in a school whose leader was on paternity leave.

Leyla Bravo, who will be the founding principal, was born in Nicaragua and grew up in North Miami Beach. She went to public schools here before attending Harvard University.

Bravo was recruited into a New York City classroom by the national nonprofit Teach For America and later worked as a teacher, dean and assistant principal for KIPP in Harlem. She’ll take the reins of KIPP Miami next school year.

In 2015, Bravo saw her first class of students at a KIPP school in New York City graduate and go to college.

She said: “That moment was really the moment when I was like, ‘I really want to bring the same opportunities down to Miami.’ ”

The political landscape of KIPP in Florida

Throughout last legislative session, Corcoran often wondered aloud why KIPP had only one location in Florida.

The new KIPP in Miami was in the works before the House speaker proposed his signature “schools of hope” law. Even so, the school is likely to be associated with Corcoran by political allies and detractors on either side of the contentious school choice debate, since his stated aim in proposing the legislation was to attract national charter firms like KIPP to Florida.

Credit Steve Cannon / Miami Herald via AP
Miami Herald via AP
House Speaker Richard Corcoran last year repeatedly lamented there was only one KIPP location in Florida. He passed his "schools of hope" law to try to change that.

Corcoran is rumored to be planning a gubernatorial bid, in part based on his record as an avid promoter of charter schools.

Corcoran’s “schools of hope” proposal was included in the controversial House Bill 7069, which garnered the vote of only one Democrat: state Rep. Roy Hardemon, who represents Liberty City.

Once implemented, the policy will offer lucrative incentives and loosen state regulations for high-performing charter schools that open in neighborhoods where traditional public schools are failing. The new charters would be located within the attendance zone or a five-mile radius of the failing public schools, likely drawing out many of their students.

More than a dozen school districts have challenged the law in court, including those in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The districts argue several components strip elected school board members of their constitutional authority to control public schools. They’re especially incensed about a provision that will force districts to start sharing billions in local construction funding with charters for the first time, starting in February.

As part of a compromise, the “schools of hope” proposal itself includes an opportunity for traditional public schools to get an extra $2,000 per student to fund social services like health care. That puts some districts in a position of challenging a law from which they directly benefit.

Despite its lawsuit, the Palm Beach County district won the additional funding for three of its schools. Five schools in Miami-Dade County have also won the awards; that district hasn’t sued although most school board members have voted in favor of doing so eventually.

Last year, critics cited KIPP’s lackluster performance in Jacksonville in pushing back against the “schools of hope” plan. Those are the same concerns local leaders weighed during early conversations about the school coming to Liberty City this fall.

Liberty City was also home to Florida’s first-ever charter school, co-founded by Jeb Bush in 1996, before he served two terms as governor. It closed 12 years later after floundering academically and financially.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.