Experiment to close education achievement gap coming to Minnesota

Richard Barth
KIPP CEO Richard Barth says the average 5th grader comes to the program at a second or third grade level.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The Knowledge is Power Program is a network of 52 urban schools in 16 states. It was started in the mid-1990s by two teachers from inner-city public schools in Houston who wanted to prepare low-income and minority students for college. Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota applied to be a KIPP expansion site, because past efforts to narrow the achievement gap haven't worked.

"We have to face facts, and the facts are that for a horrifying percentage of our children, they are failing. We have instances of concentrated disadvantage, if you're children of color in many sites and many districts, nationally and in Minnesota, you have a less than 50 percent chance that you're going to graduate from high school," he said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty holds up Sunday's New York Times Magazine, which details the achievement gap and Knowledge is Power Program.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

During Pawlenty's first term, graduation rates for students of color in Minnesota inched up slightly, but still lag far behind those of white students. In 2005, the graduation rate for white students was 93 percent, while the rate for African-American students was less than 70 percent. For Hispanic students, the rate was less than 60-percent. And the MCA II test scores released this month also showed a substantial achievement gap. White students did better than students of color in both reading and math proficiency in every grade tested.

KIPP schools take a variety of measures to help disadvantaged students catch up. KIPP CEO Richard Barth says the average 5th grader comes to the program at a second or third grade level. More than 80 percent of the program's students are low-income, and nearly all are African American or Hispanic. Barth says KIPP schools have a longer school day and a longer school year.

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"KIPP-sters, as we call our students, come to us at 7:30 in the morning, and they're with us until 5 p.m. Teachers leave their cell phones on until 10 o'clock at night for students who need extra help. Our students come to school typically every other Saturday for half a day and they come to school for a month during the summer," he said.

KIPP also sets high expectations for students to attend class, complete their homework, listen attentively and behave respectfully in school. Barth says school leaders develop their own curriculum, but KIPP schools are about more than just drilling students to do well on standardized tests.

"One of the virtues of the extended day and of having Saturday opportunities and summers, our kids get exposed to arts, they participate in orchestras and choruses and bands, they participate in sports, they get exposed to field trips and seeing parts - even in the Twin Cities - probably seeing things in the Twin Cities they never have seen before. And so we think that broad, rich approach to school is incredibly important."

Most KIPP schools are charter schools, but some are part of a district. Most are middle schools, although the program has added its first high schools and elementary schools. Barth says the program will begin searching for a top school leader and a site in the Twin Cities. He says KIPP may open schools in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, and they could be charter or district schools.

But while KIPP has raised test scores in its urban schools, its initial presence in Minnesota will likely be limited to several hundred students. Pawlenty says KIPP alone won't reduce the state's achievement gap.

"We hope it will shine a light on a path that can be followed by others, whether it be public schools, charter schools or others. For the disadvantaged students, the current model is not working very well, and so things have to change," he said.

Pawlenty has called for the overhaul of the Minnesota high school system, and has pushed for more math requirements and more money for college-level courses. As he prepares for a second term, Pawlenty says he'll continue to call for more rigor at the high school level.