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KIPP has new leader, still looking for new site

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 12, 2011 - KIPP in St. Louis is starting the new school year with a new regional director and an old task -- finding a site in north St. Louis for a second location.

The new executive director for KIPP St. Louis is Kelly Garrett. He began Aug. 8, replacing Thomas Walker, who is now a vice president at the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College.

In announcing Garrett's appointment, Maxine Clark, chairman of the KIPP St. Louis board, said he "has a rare combination of classroom, education, entrepreneurship, business and foundation management experience."

One of the first areas in which he will be able to apply that experience is the continuing search for a site for a second KIPP school, to go along with KIPP Inspire Academy, which opened to fifth-graders in 2009 and has added a grade each year since. It's located in south St. Louis in a refurbished school building at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church at 2647 Ohio Ave. It has 260 students registered for grades 5-7 for the school year that begins Monday.

So far, efforts to find a location for a second KIPP school, this time in north St. Louis, have been unsuccessful. Garrett told the Beacon that several sites are under consideration, including the former Zion Lutheran School on N. 21st St. and some former St. Louis Public School buildings that are no longer in use.

Garrett said once a site is chosen, he doesn't expect the new school to open before 2013. Washington University, which sponsors KIPP Inspire, has agreed to sponsor up to five KIPP schools in the St. Louis area.

"KIPP is committed to serving kids with the greatest need," he said, "and we will be in ZIP codes where kids need access to high-quality schools. That's kind of a changing target, but generally speaking the north side of St. Louis is an area of opportunity for us."

Garrett said his connection with KIPP goes back to 1992, when he was part of Teach for America in Houston, spending three years at an inner-city school. There, he worked with Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, who went on to found the original KIPP academies in Houston and in the South Bronx area of New York City.

From Houston, Garrett moved to Memphis, where he founded a privately funded pre-school for low-income children, then to Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA. For the past six years, he has worked with the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, which has helped fund both KIPP and Teach for America. He was also on the KIPP St. Louis board.

A native of Monett, Mo., who recalls coming to St. Louis as a child to watch the Cardinals, Garrett said that even though he didn't go to high school here, coming to St. Louis "feels like coming home to me. Because of my passion for education reform, St. Louis is a place where we have the greatest chance to have an impact."

Depending on how that impact is measured, KIPP's success in St. Louis so far can be viewed in different ways.

Preliminary MAP scores released by Missouri education officials last week showed that while KIPP scores generally improved from one year to the next, in most grades and most subject areas, they remain below state averages. That situation is not uncommon for charter schools in the state.

Douglas Thaman, the executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said in a statement earlier this week that the group was pleased with scores of charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City because they showed that students were moving out of the two lowest classifications, basic and below basic, and into the top two classifications, proficient and advanced, which is where they must be to count as passing under No Child Left Behind.

Thaman said his group recognizes that some charter schools in Missouri are still struggling academically, but in general he said they are making progress and doing the job they are supposed to do — provide an alternative source of schooling funded by taxpayer dollars.

"The charter bargain of autonomy for accountability matters and produces favorable results," he said. "We stand ready to work with those schools committed to quality improvements, striving daily to improve, and not settling for the status quo. We look forward to the day when all of Missouri's charter public schools are exceeding state averages.

"The parents who have entrusted Missouri's charter public schools with the future of their children deserve nothing short of the quality education that was promised to them when they enrolled their child in a charter school."

As far as KIPP goes, Garrett said that raw numerical scores need to be put into the context of how students are achieving when they enter KIPP or any school compared with how far they have come when they take the test. He said in many cases, students gain two whole grade levels in one year of class, and the school is shooting for a goal of 100 percent proficient or advanced by the time their students get out of eighth grade, which will be added next year.

"I know at KIPP we have seen extraordinary growth," he said. "By no means am I trying to spin this. We know we still have a lot of work to do. Only half of our kids in some areas are achieving where we want them to achieve. We're at the beginning of our third year, so we're still in base camp for where we are going in this journey.

"We don't consider the fact that our kids do come in far behind their grade level to be an excuse. It's our inspiration."

Dissatisfaction with the academic performance of some charter schools in the state has led Missouri education officials to draw up a new proposed rule on how closely sponsors must monitor schools' academic achievement. Currently, state officials do not have the authority to close down charters whose students perform below expectations; that can only be done by their sponsors.

The rule will be considered by the state Board of Education at its meeting next week in Jefferson City.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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