"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Teaching at St. Hope Charter Schools: Why Does This Feel Like KIPP?

St. Hope Public Schools is comprised of four charter schools in Sacramento, CA, and they serve to richly supplement the lavish lifestyles for St. Hope's founder and Sacramento mayor, Kevin Johnson, and his wife, Michelle Rhee, who also serves as the Chairman of the Board for St. Hope Public Schools.  
In 2014, almost a third of St. Hope's expenses went to pay administrative costs:
 Inside St. Hope's dehumanizing school environments that are staffed largely by TFA recruits, we find KIPP Model practices, including enforced silence for most of the day, screaming at children, total control of student movement and activity, and "culture reboot" sessions for children whose behavior does not pass muster.
            Along with interviews conducted with former KIPP teachers, three teachers from two other No Excuses charter networks shared their stories for this book.  One was from Ascend Learning, Inc. and the other two were St. Hope Public Schools, Inc.  These teachers were asked the questions asked of former KIPP teachers, and the overlap of their responses was striking.  This should come as no surprise, perhaps, since both charter chains share organizational and pedagogical features derived from the KIPP Model. 
As at KIPP, St. HOPE depends heavily on Teach for America teachers.  At St. HOPE’s middle school, PS7, 15 of the 18 teachers were active TFA corps members in 2014, and one other teacher was a former corps member.  One of the former St. HOPE teachers noted, “our principal, our deans, our superintendent, our HR people, our teachers that get recognized frequently, are all Teach for America alumni.” She said that with St. HOPE’s embrace of TFA, the  “. . . culture completely shifted. And it turned into a teach-to-the-test type environment. And you know, suddenly all of our administration, there were tons of turnover, and then there were tons of turnovers as far as teachers are concerned—so the St. Hope now is just a completely different place than it was three or four years ago.”…
Whether we are examining teaching strategies, curriculum, stress levels, management, discipline, attrition, school environment, parent relations, or intended outcomes, similar issues and problems are encountered by No Excuses charter school teachers, whether at KIPP or one of the many KIPP knockoffs…
Another teacher who had worked at both KIPP and at St. HOPE had similar reactions to the total compliance enforcement.  She said she had learned a great deal working in a charter school before quitting to go to work in a public school, and that she was grateful for the experience.  However, she said, “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone who wanted to be a teacher for the long-term.”  When I asked why not, she said, “It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing. And it’s just, there are parts of it that are kind of a joke, you know, as far as principals being promoted [from] within, after being teachers for two years, and things like that. You know, totally unqualified people running every aspect of the school.”
            In comparing the two charter school environments, she found St. HOPE a “step down” from KIPP.  When I asked for specifics, she said:
It’s a step down from KIPP as far as the commitment, because they didn’t require us to host Saturday school, which was a requirement at KIPP. I had to be at school, you know, every Saturday. So PS7 did not require us to do that. PS7 did not require us to host students after school and provide them with dinner. You know, we didn’t have to do that. Whereas, at KIPP, we did.
            The other St. HOPE teacher had previously served as a teacher, teacher coach, and public school administrator at both the building and central office levels before returning to middle school teaching at St. HOPE.  She echoed a number of the concerns that I had heard from former KIPP teachers.  She felt pushed into an unfamiliar “mold” that she felt was “disrespectful to the students.”  As someone with a background in research, she found the school’s student expectations “very contrary to what research says about adolescent kids’ need to be able to grow and mature.” When I asked her to be specific she said,
…all of student movement and activity is controlled—l mean completely controlled by the adults. And by that I mean the expectation is that students aren’t supposed to be talking in the classroom, where my belief system says that children can’t learn if they can’t talk—and that structured opportunities to practice language are critical for all kids. 
            She was visited on a regular basis and told her she was “too nice to the kids” and “too soft on them.”  She found “the behavior that they modeled was, you know, very militaristic screaming at the kids—I mean, shouting.”  She found that all the students in the school “were expected to line up in silence, facing front, and accompanied by an adult for every transition in their day.” She said,
…we’d waste 10 minutes [at every transition] lining kids up to meet these expectations, making them, you know, stand silently for a few minutes, walk in silence. If they didn’t, stop them and, you know, do it again. And it just seems bizarre to me. And I tried to meet the expectations of the school, to behave in the way that I was expected to behave, but it just felt awful. I mean, it felt wrong in every way. And when I found myself shouting at kids I just said, this is not right. This is not who I am, and this is, I can’t do this.
            As at KIPP, St. HOPE uses the student paycheck as a way to control student behavior.  Students start the week with 100 dollars in their paycheck and must end the week with at least 70 dollars.  During the week, teachers must carry the clipboard with them at all times and record additions and deletions to student paycheck totals for any offense.  Students who got to Friday with less than 70 dollars on their checks were subjected to “culture reboot.” The offenders were escorted to lunch, where
. . .they would get their food and go eat lunch in silence in a large room that they had, and some of them would have to turn and actually face the wall, but they weren’t allowed to talk. So they had to eat their lunch in silence and then just sit there and do worksheets for the 90 minutes that was this electives period.
She said that everything about the control of movement and control of thinking left her with the sense that “everything about it was cult-like,” and the emphasis on team and school identity could not disguise a school environment where “kids do not feel connected to their school.”   Her realization that her first year with St. HOPE would be her last came on one of her many late evenings at school, as she tried to finish all the work that had be done the St. HOPE way:
I actually tried to drink the Kool-Aid for a while. And so I think there was really a moment where, you know, one of the many, many, many evenings that I was at the school site at nine o’clock trying to finish up what we were supposed to have done, just thinking, this is insane. This is certainly not good for me, and I really don’t think it’s good for them, and I just, I can’t drink the Kool-Aid anymore.
When asked what she would tell a friend who was thinking about applying at St. HOPE, she said, “I’d say, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Let me help you get a job somewhere else. I’ve helped three teachers leave there since I left. What I would tell them is to expect untenable work expectations that are very discouraging.”
New York Times Magazine reported in 2006 that KIPP, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Amistad Academy in Connecticut, and North Star Academy in New Jersey consistently shared strategies and methods aimed to produce the high test scores.  That list of KIPP emulators has proliferated since then, and the emulation of KIPP methods with it.  For instance, KIPP’s SLANT model for classroom behavior (sitting up, listening, asking questions, nodding, and tracking the teacher) is a widely shared strategy among No Excuses charters.  New York Times reporter, Paul Tough (2006), noted that David Levin believes that, unlike KIPPsters, “Americans of a certain background learn these methods for taking in information early on and employ them instinctively” (para 39). 
Because KIPP students or the hundreds of thousands of other segregated charter students in No Excuses lockdown schools are not among those “Americans of a certain background,” they “need to be taught the methods explicitly.”  Perhaps more eyebrows would have been raised if No Excuses charter operators like Levin did not have gifted writers like Paul Tough to make the paternalists’ condescension at least vaguely couched.
If Tough had stated explicitly that Levin and Feinberg believe that brown and black children of poor parents must be explicitly programmed to sit up, listen, nod, and track the teacher in order to avoid chaos in the classroom, then the KIPP Model’s ideology of the “Broken Windows” paternalism would have been clear for all to see.  This would surely require the re-framing of the civil rights rhetoric of No Excuses schooling, at least from those elites not entirely sanguine about corporate missionary work aimed to isolate and treat, by behavioral and neurological alteration, the defects of poor children.
Ascend Learning.  (2015).  The Ascend culture.  Retrieved from http://www.ascendlearning.org/design/culture
Dillon, S.  (2011, March 31).  Study says charter network has financial advantages over public schools.  The New York Times.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/31/education/31kipp.html?_r=1&
St. Hope Public Schools.  (n.d).  Five pillars.  Retrieved from http://sthopepublicschools.org/five-pillars/
Toch, T.  (2009).  Charter-management organizations: Expansion, survival, and impact.  Education Week, 29 (9), 26-27, 32.
Tough, P.  (2006, November 26).  What it takes to make a student.  New York Times Magazine.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/26/magazine/26tough.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0

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