Richard Barth, Chief Executive Officer, KIPP Foundation

August 21, 2009
Richard Barth, Chief Executive Officer, KIPP Foundation

The Obama administration has thrown down the gauntlet to educators and legislators to fix "an education system that used to be...the best in the world, and no longer is." Of the approximately $100 billion earmarked for education in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more than $10 billion in grant money will be made available to the states and school districts that are driving reform. The centerpiece of that effort, the Race to the Top Fund, is a national competition for $4.35 billion in funds that aims to identify and replicate effective education reform strategies and classroom innovations. And at this early date, charter schools have caught the attention of both the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, both of whom support eliminating caps on charter school growth, as seven states have already done.

One of the most highly regarded charter school systems in the country, KIPP has grown in fifteen years from two schools, one in Houston and the other in New York City, to a network of eighty-two open-enrollment public schools. Today, KIPP schools serve twenty thousand students in underresourced communities in nineteen states and the District of Columbia, and more are planned. While the jury is still out on the long-term impact of the KIPP model, which stresses personal responsibility, hard work, and long hours for both students and teachers, in 2007 almost 95 percent of KIPP alumni went on to college-preparatory high schools.

Earlier this summer, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, about the success of the KIPP network, the national crisis in education, and why he is optimistic about the future of education in the United States.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is KIPP and why was it created?

Richard Barth: KIPP is a national network of open-enrollment public schools that prepares children for success in college and in life. It was created in 1994 by two teachers, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who launched a fifth-grade public school program in inner-city Houston after completing their Teach For America commitment. The following year, Feinberg remained in Houston to lead KIPP Academy Middle School, and Levin returned home to New York City to establish KIPP Academy in the South Bronx.

The KIPP program is based on a core set of five principles or "pillars": high expectations, choice and commitment on the part of both the students and their parents, more time to learn, a profound belief in the school leader's power to lead, and a focus on results. We believe that if principals are to be held accountable for creating a great school, they need to have the freedom to control as much of their budget as possible, build their own team, and make core decisions about curriculum. We also operate on the belief that if you're going to prepare children to succeed in college and life — particularly kids coming from some of the most underresourced communities in the country — trying to do so in an 8:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. school day makes no sense. KIPP has had a 7:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. school day from the very beginning, and we've been able to deliver for our kids by getting off the agrarian calendar. Finally, we believe in developing the whole child — that character growth matters as much as academic growth, maybe even more, and it reinforces academic growth.

In this country today...if you're poor, the odds are less than one in ten you'll make it through college....

In this country today, three facts are true: A college degree has never mattered more and its impact on lifetime earnings is enormous; if you're poor, the odds are less than one in ten you'll make it through college; and the American public doesn't believe schools can really be part of the solution to leveling the playing field or should be held accountable. There is a huge belief that poor kids' parents don't care if they succeed in school and, given their circumstances, how could we expect something better? So beyond the children we serve directly, we are working to capture the imagination of the American people by showing them that something very different is possible. For our country, with the resources and the aspirations we have, to accept what we have today is unfathomable.

PND: What is the role of the KIPP Foundation?

RB: The KIPP Foundation was created in 2001 when Gap co-founders Doris and Donald Fisher gave Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin $15 million to replicate the success of the first two KIPP schools in cities and communities across the country. The foundation has three core roles: growth, quality assurance, and, increasingly, the sharing of best practices. While we make sure the schools are living up to our mission, we also want to help them connect with and learn from each other so that as we get bigger, we can get even better.

The foundation focuses on recruiting, training, and supporting outstanding leaders to open new, locally run KIPP schools in high-need communities. We don't manage the schools — each one is run independently by the school leader and a local board of directors; rather, we are responsible for supporting and monitoring quality across the network.

When I came on board in January 2007, KIPP had just opened its forty-fifth school; this summer, we opened our eighty-second school. We have a five-year plan to grow to ninety-seven schools by 2010, and by next summer we will have reached or surpassed that goal thanks in part to the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, which all came in behind the Fishers to make that happen. Four years ago, Richard Rainwater and his foundation decided to be our primary sponsor for growing elementary schools nationally, and they have provided unbelievable support toward our expansion.

PND: One of the foundation's goals is to replicate the success of the two original KIPP schools, yet you've said that every KIPP school is different, in that it is shaped by the vision of its leader. So what exactly is the foundation replicating?

In our organization, the major decisions are made by those closest to understanding the issues, so if we get the leadership piece right, most everything else will work out....

RB: We have a core belief in leadership, so the way we replicate is not through a manual or a prescribed program but in finding fantastic people and preparing them through a year-long fellowship to open a new KIPP school. In our organization, the major decisions are made by those closest to understanding the issues, so if we get the leadership piece right, most everything else will work out. The foundation decides which region should grow, when it grows, and how it grows. Today, KIPP has eighteen regional support organizations sharing a single services center, a common board, and an executive director. Schools within a region take advantage of economies of scale in securing talent and other resources. The shared services center supports their operations so they can focus on instruction. In a given region, KIPP begins with one school and scales up to five or ten schools.

PND: Does support for KIPP come primarily from foundations?

RB: About 70 percent of our support comes from foundations — more precisely, from five or six foundations that have made it possible for KIPP to grow from two to eighty-two schools in eight years. Our primary funders tend to be foundations where the person or family whose name is attached to the foundation is still alive and feels passionately about what we're trying to do. Behind the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, for instance, you have Doris and Donald Fisher; the Dell Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell; the Broad Foundation, Eli and Edythe Broad; and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, Richard Rainwater. The same is true for the Walton Family and Gates foundations. All these people are very much alive and are committing money they have made in their lifetime.

PND: Do these foundations support KIPP solely at the national level, or do they also channel money to specific schools?

RB: Our national funders support our mission and model, but some of them also have a geographic connection to a certain area and may also choose to fund schools in that region. For instance, Eli Broad has supported KIPP schools in Los Angeles, where he lives, while Michael and Susan Dell have supported KIPP schools in Texas. The Robertson Foundation, another one of our anchor supporters, also has a New York City focus.

KIPP schools are established with starter grants, which tend to come from two sources: the Walton Family Foundation and the federal government. As public charter schools, KIPP schools typically receive 70 percent to 90 percent of the operational revenue and none of the revenue for capital expenditures that traditional district schools receive. In the operating budget, whatever is not covered by state and local funding is typically obtained from local funders. The additional money pays for things like the longer school day, staff salaries, and field trips, as well as non-core education costs such as facilities and busing that district schools traditionally don't incur.

PND: What kind of fundraising challenges are you facing?

RB: Right now, our number-one challenge — and opportunity — is securing government money. The problem is that the Federal Funding Program is not set up to support more than one start-up charter school in a city. So to access that money to expand the KIPP network in Houston, for example, we'd have to create a new governing board for each school — or ten governing boards for ten schools — and that just isn't cost-effective. We're working with the Obama administration to try and change the policy, and the administration has been very supportive. Our goal is to make sure the majority of the eighteen schools we established in twelve cities this summer will get access to start-up money from the government in 2010.

PND: KIPP's founders came out of Teach For America, an organization you helped shape in its formative years. What is the relationship between KIPP and TFA today?

RB: KIPP and Teach For America's ties go way back. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin did come out of Teach For America, and I worked with and am married to TFA founder Wendy Kopp. The two organizations continue to have a strong relationship on a couple of fronts. We both have a large national footprint — KIPP is in seventeen of the twenty largest cities in the country, and TFA often places corps members in areas where there are KIPP schools — so we have a lot of geographic overlap. In addition, a lot of corps members become passionate about what they're doing and decide to stay in the field, so it's natural that KIPP is one of the places they look to as they as they consider where to go next. Both organizations also focus on leadership and high expectations; 50 percent of our principals are TFA alumni. So Teach For America teachers and alumni who work in KIPP schools see that we are open to younger leadership and see KIPP as an opportunity for relatively rapid advancement within the field.

PND: While opportunities to lead exist at KIPP, they also require a rigorous year of training through your Fisher Fellowship Program. How does one become a Fisher Fellow?

RB: First, you have to have experience as a teacher before being accepted into the program. But not only do you have to have taught, you have to have taught successfully and have data to prove you were able to move the needle for kids academically. We're open to 29- or 30-year-old applicants, as long as they have been teaching long enough to have a good sense of our mission and the work we do; on average, that's been seven or eight years. The fellowship starts with intensive summer coursework in an academic setting, followed by residencies at high-performing KIPP schools, individualized leadership coaching, and training conferences to learn how to start a KIPP school. In January, the fellows are back full-time in their communities, finishing their school design plans and preparing to build a KIPP school from the ground up.

PND: In his book Work Hard. Be Nice, Jay Mathews addresses what he calls myths about KIPP, including "It's just a lot of white people telling black people what to do." What are the current demographics of KIPP principals, teachers, and students?

RB: Over 90 percent of KIPP students are African American or Hispanic/Latino, and more than 80 percent are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. Our school leadership currently consists of 50 percent people of color, but in each of the past two years the new leaders we've brought in through the Fisher Fellowships are more than 50 percent people of color. And of the applicants to the program this year, 70 percent were people of color. So we're grooming a diverse principal corps. And the same is true for our teachers. For the 2008-09 school year, out of almost twelve hundred teachers, 39 percent were African American or Hispanic/Latino, 9 percent were Asian, and 51 percent were white. And of that same group, 33 percent were male, 67 percent were female, and 28 percent were Teach For America alumni.

PND: What do teachers find most rewarding about the KIPP model — and most challenging? And what are the statistics on KIPP teacher retention?

Through surveys, we're learning that great teachers want to work with other great teachers....

RB: Through surveys, we're learning that great teachers want to work with other great teachers. The number-one motivator is feeling you're a member of a team dedicated to a common mission — and that you're winning. People outside the KIPP network might perceive that one of the greatest challenges our teachers face is the longer school day and that it leaves no time for a life outside of teaching. But our teachers have normal lives, and many have families and children. They make it work with support from their teammates; they also typically earn 15 percent to 20 percent more in salary than traditional public school teachers as compensation for the extra time they put in. Great things happen at KIPP because teachers, kids, and families working together with the support of a committed school leader tend to care more than other people think is wise; work harder than other people think makes sense; and believe that the future is theirs. We don't want to lose people who would be amazing teachers but never apply because they have an image of KIPP that's not real. But we believe KIPP teachers themselves will change that perception. When we're recruiting and our teachers start talking about the schools, we do very well.

Teacher turnover varies widely across the KIPP network. On average, over the last three to four years, KIPP schools have experienced an annual teacher turnover of one-third, but we recently collected more detailed data from a sample of the teachers that left KIPP classrooms in 2007-08 and found that about a third of them had either transferred to another KIPP school or moved into leadership or administrative roles at KIPP. This spring, we piloted the Healthy Schools Initiative to measure school indicators beyond standardized test scores and identified some areas we can address that will impact teacher retention, such as the need for better orientation for new teachers.

PND: Where do parents fit into the KIPP mix?

RB: Parents are an unbelievably important part of the equation. Because our kids and their families often face significant challenges on the home front, and parents sometimes hold down two or three jobs, we don't expect them to show up or volunteer for every school activity. Their core responsibilities are to understand our mission, believe in their child's choice to attend a KIPP school, and support the child 100 percent. That means making sure the child is at school every day and arrives on time, and if the school or the parents sense the child is beginning to stray, getting the child back on course. We assume parents take an active part in their child's life and will partner with the school so it can deliver for their child. KIPP parents do that, absolutely.

PND: Many American-based corporations, particularly technology companies, have bemoaned the state of math and science education in the United States. What are KIPP schools doing to prepare students in those areas?

RB: On a national level, we do math about as well as anyone out there. By the time "KIPPsters" reach eighth grade, 84 percent of them are above the national average in math. Call it the "Lake Wobegon" effect. On the other hand, we acknowledge that we don't do science well at the elementary and middle school level. The subject is underresourced; even more important, it's under-led and it's under-invested in by school leaders. Certainly, if a school leader happens to be passionate and knowledgeable about science, students at that school will learn science; otherwise, learning in that area tends to atrophy. KIPP plans to do some backward-mapping to figure out where kids need to be in science in tenth and twelfth grade, then figure out what we have to do to prepare them.

PND: What does putting so much emphasis on math and science education mean for subjects like social studies, language, and arts education? And what about the development of social and emotional skills, or the importance of recess and physical education?

RB: Our longer school day can accommodate activities that don't fit in a traditional school day. One of the great misconceptions people have about KIPP when they hear that the kids go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. is that they're doing math worksheets eleven hours a day. That's not true. Our kids definitely are exposed to the arts, for instance, but in keeping with KIPP tradition, each school leader approaches the subject differently, leveraging the skills and passions of teachers and giving them the time and space they need to work with the kids in these areas. And all our schools also offer some form of physical exercise, which is hugely important to mental health and longevity.

PND: What would have to happen for the visions of KIPP, Teacher For America, and other educational change agents to become a reality?

KIPP's vision is that one day all children will have access to a great school that prepares them for success in life....

RB: Teach For America's vision is that one day all children will have access to an excellent education. KIPP's vision is that one day all children will have access to a great school that prepares them for success in life. In other words, where you're born shouldn't dictate your destiny. What will it take to get there? The key is rallying people who believe deeply and passionately that something different is possible and showing them schools that are far more successful than they could have imagined, fueling their desire to create more of those kinds of schools. For the last ten years, people have been seeing individual school success. Now they're looking to see if entire systems of schools can be grown successfully. That's what the next ten years will be about.

Ideally, these systems would become part of a national schools network. Under No Child Left Behind, each state determined "passing" standards and tests, with the result that some were high and others low, making it difficult to hold schools accountable for results. That system also keeps teachers from sharing ideas, inhibits innovation, and prevents meaningful comparison of student, teacher, and school performance. A unified national vision for achievement standards and related assessments, on the other hand, would expand our lens into school performance while freeing up more time for classroom instruction. Equipping teachers with clear outcomes for learning empowers them to help all kids reach standards and get an equitable start in college and life.

In opening schools across the country, KIPP has found that people like to think their situations are far more unique than they actually are. But we're finding that what works in Atlanta tends to work in Austin, and what works in New Orleans tends to work in Newark. The country is experiencing a national crisis in education, and it's important for people to see that the solutions to that crisis need not be overly customized. A good idea will probably resonate as much in Chicago as it will in St. Louis.

PND: Are you optimistic about the future of education in this country?

RB: I am. Eight years ago, education was not on the administration's agenda in spite of people's best efforts, but I think President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan want to see great things happen for kids and are tackling the important issues in a strategic way. I'm also hopeful because more capable people from all walks of life are getting involved in helping to create schools that put kids first. We need as many great people as possible to decide "This will be my life's work." If that continues to happen, we'll succeed.

PND: If President Obama asked you to help assemble a small group of education innovators to discuss education reform with him, who would you recommend and why?

RB: I'd put Wendy Kopp on the list because of what she's accomplished with Teach For America through her understanding of the importance of investing in human capital and talent. And I would include some people who study data on both K-12 and higher education, and some innovative leaders of public school systems, including Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest public school system in the country; Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and a nationally recognized leader in developing innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring; and KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. I'd also include some people who want to leverage technology to make a difference for kids — perhaps Bill Gates himself. Lastly, I'd make sure that the leaders and members of the communities we serve are at the table so we don't lose sight of the level of urgency with which the issue needs to be approached. I want folks for whom the issue is life or death moving us forward. We've got to make things happen for kids today — not twenty years from now.

PND: Well, thank you, Richard.

RB: Thank you.

PND staff writer Alice Garrard spoke with Richard Barth earlier this summer. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org.