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What’s in the special sauce at Blue Ribbon winner KIPP Raíces?

Craig Clough | October 13, 2015

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KIPP Raices

Jessica Moy teaches her second grade class at Kipp Raíces Academy School.

There is something special happening at Kipp Raíces Academy School in East LA, an independent charter school which recently became LA Unified’s only National Blue Ribbon School for 2015.

While 90 percent of the students at KIPP Raíces are from low-income families and 96 percent are Latino and more than half of all students are English learners, the school vastly outperformed district averages in the recent statewide English and math: 74 percent of its students met or exceeded the standards in English language arts, and 79 percent met or exceeded in math, compared with 33 percent in English and 25 percent in math for LA Unified schools.

Further, economically disadvantaged students at the school far outperformed the non-economically disadvantaged students across the district and the state, and the school’s English learners far outpaced the district and state average for fluent English speakers — on the English language arts test.

These performance levels at KIPP Raíces, a K-4th grade elementary school founded in 2008, raise two important policy questions for LA Unified at a time charter schools are poised to become a greater presence within the district: One, to what degree are district officials trying to replicate the successful approach at Raíces and other high-performing charters? And, two, with the Broad Foundation’s plan to expand charter schools in low-income areas at LA Unified, how will they approximate what Raíces is doing?

With those questions in mind, LA School Report visited Raíces for a first-hand look at its approach to education and to ask its leaders how they have attained well-above average success. Here are a few key findings:

High expectations

Principal Chelsea Zegarski, a teacher at Raíces before becoming principal in 2014, said the school’s success begins with setting high expectations. For one, the academic day runs from 7:45 a.m to 4 p.m., longer than in most schools.

“I would say high expectations is a huge focus for us. It’s one of our pillars — KIPP has five pillars,” Zegarski said. “That means high expectations for students as far as their learning and their academics, but also high expectations for ourselves and our staff and what high quality teaching looks like.”

These high exceptions are front and center each time a student enters a classroom, as every doorway is decorated with the specific name, colors and logo of a major college. Every year, students take a field trip to a college campus in Southern California.

“We know that our kids are going to be going out into the world and competing with everybody, with people who went to Harvard-Westlake where those Ivy League schools are more of a household name,” Zegarski said, explaining the big focus on students understanding the college experience at such an early age.

It’s all about the teachers

Zegarski stressed how much focus the school puts on hiring and retaining teachers who can work in a collaborative environment.

“Whenever people ask what is your most effective strategy for this test or what’s your most effective strategy for this particular thing, the answer always is strong hiring practices to get the right people in the door,” Zegarski said.

Second grade teacher Jessica Moy said she feels more as part of a collaborative team at KIPP than she did previously at a private school and a different charter school.

“I do feel more free to teach, but I feel more free in a way that’s also supported by other strong teachers. I’m not doing my own thing and figuring out my own way, but because we colaborate so much we can be sharing the best practices,” Moy said.

A number of studies have shown that charter school teachers are asked, on average, to work longer hours than traditional school teachers do, which has also led to a higher burnout rate. At KIPP, long hours do appear to be the norm.

Moy, who is in her fourth year at the school, said her teacher friends at other schools, often ask, “‘Aren’t you giving up a lot of your free time to invest in all these extra hours of work?’ And I think we are trying to find that balance. I think in the beginning it was a lot more work than free time and space at home, but we are trying to strike that balance.”

Strong relationships with students and families

During the summer, all KIPP Raíces teachers visit the homes of their upcoming students. And KIPP students also spend two full weeks in summer school before academic lessons begin when the entire focus is on classroom procedures, expectations, values and rules.

“Building those relationships those first couple weeks of summer school and establishing those rules and procedures set them up for success for the rest of the year, and we have to spend less instructional time fixing these little behavioral and cultural mishaps during the regular school year,” Moy said.

Lots of extras

With the same level of per-pupil spending, the school has managed to budget for and prioritize things that been problems in traditional schools. Every student receives arts education, every student has a laptop computer and every student is provided an organic meal at lunchtime. When asked how the organic food is afforded, Zegarski shrugged and said, “It’s not that much more expensive, and it has always just been a priority.”

Every student also receives Spanish lessons, even though many of the students speak Spanish in the home. Zegarski said the goal is to create not just bilingual students, but bi-literate ones.

Using freedom wisely

Despite the common perception that charters are free of the “red tape” that slows down traditional schools, Zegarski was quick to say freedom isn’t the sliver bullet solution unless you know how to aim properly.

“The freedom doesn’t necessary always equate to success. It’s not just the freedom, it’s an issue of prioritization and really focusing in what are those decisions that we can make that most impact student learning,” she said.

To what extent can the school’s success be easily replicated? It’s not that simple, Zegarski said.

“A school is such a vibrant organism and there are so many parts that make it work on a daily basis,” she said.

Zegarski also said that more important than the freedom to choose its particular approach is the process a dedicated staff and faculty goes through developing it.

“I don’t think it’s, ‘Lets find the golden curriculum and then share it widely,'” she said. “I think really the process of creating curriculum and planning and digging and unpacking the standards in those conversations that come with it with the teacher who is doing the planning, those are the intangibles.”

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