Published in the Houston Chronicle on January 5, 2013
Over breakfast once a month, some unlikely guests gather around the same table: the superintendent of the Spring Branch school district and the leaders of the KIPP and YES charter schools. Officials with traditional districts and charter schools typically compete - for students, state funds and status. But Spring Branch is one of a few school systems nationwide that has embraced its high-performing rivals, allowing KIPP and YES this year to start their own campuses within two of the district's middle schools. Students from the different schools interact in elective classes, teachers visit their counterparts' classrooms to get ideas, and the top officials brainstorm and hash out issues over waffles and eggs. As Mike Feinberg, the cofounder of the Knowledge is Power Program, puts it, the time has come for districts and charters "to quit being cats and dogs and work together."
The big question, of course, is whether this budding partnership will result in students acquiring a better education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation believes so strongly in the cooperation that it made a $2.1 million donation to the Spring Branch partnership. It is donating a total of $25 million to seven districts nationwide.
YES Prep has taken over part of the second floor of Spring Branch's Northbrook Middle School, where several classrooms formerly sat empty. Turquoise banners hang from the ceiling in the YES area: "We give one hundred percent everyday." "The students of today are the leaders of tomorrow."
KIPP fifth-graders including Victor Perez, 11, from left, Jose Ortiz, 10, and Tamara Madrid, 10, play in the beginning band class with Landrum Middle School students, who are in the back row. The alliance between the two programs hopes to make music together. The KIPP campus, housed in a wing at Landrum Middle School, starts with fifth-graders, following the charter school's typical grade configuration. Similar inspirational quotes hang from above. The charters keep their students in school for more time each day, an extra 90 minutes at YES and two-plus hours at KIPP. And the charter teachers - many of them less experienced, undergoing certification while on the job - essentially are on call 24/7, giving students their cellphone numbers.
Jennifer Rivera, a math teacher at the traditional Northbrook school, said teachers were nervous about YES coming on board at first because they feared losing their jobs. But she said she became excited after touring a different YES campus, where she saw students reading and discussing homework during lunch. Rivera even suggested that her younger sister apply to the YES program at Northbrook. The girl was earning poor grades, and Rivera thought the smaller setting would help. "I have seen her go from a very shy and timid little sixth-grader to a confident scholar," Rivera said of her sister's first semester at YES.
"She comes home and does her homework every night. She calls her teachers when she has issues."
Some earlier attempts at charter and district partnerships have fizzled. YES opened a campus at Lee High School in Houston ISD but shut it down in late 2009 after two years. Lee ended up not having enough space for YES to grow, said YES founder Chris Barbic, and the school officials didn't collaborate as much as they initially intended.
Duncan Klussmann, superintendent of Spring Branch ISD, said some of his principals worried at first that they would lose their top students to the charter schools. One, he said, wouldn't let the charter officials visit classrooms to tell students about their new options. Valerie Johnson, the principal of Northbrook Middle School, said the YES program has "re-energized" her campus. Spinning off the YES model, Johnson now has her students taking an extra 45 minutes of math and reading every other day (YES students have daily 90-minute classes). The YES students' scores on the state's standardized exams will count toward Northbrook's academic rating. The charter school's seven campuses earned the state's highest or second-highest ratings in 2011. Northbrook and Landrum were rated "acceptable," one step lower.
Critics of charter schools say the campuses perform better because they attract the best students, the ones with the most motivated parents.
'Just the same kids'
Johnson, the Northbrook principal, has heard those concerns, but after seeing who's enrolled in the YES school on her campus, she said, "It's just the same kids we have." Klussmann said internal tests given this semester show progress at the traditional Spring Branch middle schools, but the results are too preliminary to be conclusive. Still, he's optimistic about expanding the district's work with the charter schools. At the Breakfast Klub restaurant one morning this month, KIPP Superintendent Sehba Ali said the charter network wanted to focus more on blending online and in-class learning.
"Can we do it together and try for a development grant?" Klussmann asked.
Written by: Ericka Mellon