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Newsmaker: Richard Barth, CEO, KIPP Foundation

August 21, 2009

KIPP_logo (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, will make available $4.35 billion to identify and replicate effective education reform strategies and classroom innovations, including charter schools.

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. Earlier this summer, PND's Alice Garrard spoke with Richard Barth, CEO of the KIPP Foundation, about the success of the KIPP network, the national crisis in education, and why Barth 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, 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?

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....

To read the complete interview and/or leave a comment, click here.

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