High Scores, Participation Draw Attention To Lynn Charter School

By Andrea Smardon

Feb. 28, 2011

Students in Lynn's KIPP academy, which is part of a national network of charter schools that hopes to bring one of its schools to Boston. (Andrea Smardon/WGBH)

LYNN, Mass. — The number of charter schools in Massachusetts is expected to grow in the next two years. The state’s Board of Education makes its final decisions Monday on charter school applications. Of those applications, Commissioner Mitchell Chester has already recommended the approval of 17 schools, 10 of which are in Boston.
KIPP Academy is one of them. KIPP, which stands for Knowledge is Power Programs, is a national network of charter schools which aims to help underperforming students get to college. Its existing middle school in Lynn is drawing attention for significantly raising student test scores, and administrators there hope to do the same for some Boston students.

The executive director of Lynn's KIPP school says students participate at a higher level at his school than in some conventional public schools.

KIPP Academy’s 371 students are squeezed in an old church.  There are no lockers for the students, no playing fields.  The accommodations are modest, but in 5th grade science class, there is an impressive amount of energy.
There are at least 30 students in the class, most of them raising their hands to volunteer to race to the board and answer questions.
Josh Zoia is former principal and now executive director of KIPP Academy.  He says the school demands 100-percent participation. 
“Basically, every kid is raising their hand.  And they’re not tortured, right?” Zoia said.
Zoia said the school’s fifth-grade students came in to the school with below-average test scores. “For them having fun with learning, and them showing that level of engagement I think is a real testament to what the teachers and students are doing here,” Zoia said.
Plus, KIPP students are some of the top performers in the state on the MCAS exam.
Zoia says the school was designed to meet the needs of the community, which has a large immigrant population.
“For our kids, all of them basically are first-generation Americans. There are no silver spoons, and no one’s going to hand them anything. We’re trying to get our kids to strive to work really hard and be good people,” Zoia said. “And we feel like if they do that, they’re going to earn opportunities and freedom that come with being in America.”
By participating in class and doing their homework, KIPP students earn privileges like recess, electives, and field trips. The students are there for 10 hours a day, from 7 to 5.  That means the teachers have a 12-hour day, and they’re expected to be available by cell phone to answer student questions after hours. 

Josh Zoia is the executive director of the KIPP Academy in Lynn. (Courtesy photo)

Melissa Savage is the fifth-grade science teacher, still in her first year with KIPP. “My first couple months, I struggled, I was exhausted. I didn’t know how I was going to manage this,” Savage said.
But she says she gets three to five hours of planning time at school every day, which makes a big difference. “I still go home, I will say I go home at 7 p.m. and I’m still planning until 10 p.m., I’m still tired every single day,” she said, laughing.
Despite the exhaustion, Savage says she plans to stay in the KIPP system. Zoia says the teachers are paid 20 percent more on average than a public school teacher in Lynn, but it’s not what drives them. 
“I think the big difference is, although we work incredibly hard here, there is a real sense of optimism about what lies ahead for our students,” Zoia.
Zoia says that may be because KIPP’s model empowers both the administration and the teachers.
“We control what we teach, we control our hours, we control our budget.  We’re the ones that are responsible for making sure the school is doing its part,” Zoia said. “There’s no person we have to answer to except our students and families, and the Department of Ed of course.”
KIPP Academy plans to expand its middle school into a high school and an elementary school. It also wants to start a charter school in Boston.
On this particular day, the Boston Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Michael Goar is here to tour the school and to talk about its plans for Boston.
Goar says he’s impressed with the level of student engagement, but he says KIPP is not so different from the best of Boston Public Schools. 
“I think our kids are participating as much as KIPP, and our schools are just as innovative as KIPP, we have phenomenal teachers in Boston Public Schools just as KIPP… so I think that you’ll see a lot of similarities in some of our schools,” Goar said.
Goar acknowledges that there is still work to be done to reform Boston’s underperforming schools -- and parents want alternatives. He says he welcomes charter schools and hopes they can work collaboratively.
If KIPP Academy’s Boston Charter School application is approved, it would eventually serve 588 elementary and middle school students. It would open in 2012.

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