Running a new school is not all that different from any other startup business. There are surprises, pivots and changes.
Kairos Academies, an independent public charter school, is navigating its first year with two young, ambitious co-founders and an education philosophy unlike any other in St. Louis public school offerings.
Despite more than three years of pitching, preparation and recruiting, it was still a mad dash to the first day of classes.
“We truly started, like, from the ground up,” said Casey McBride, the math department chair. “So we were painting walls and assembling furniture.”
Kairos Academies and its dozen staff members opened the doors in August to 120 sixth graders, offering them a personalized learning model where students get their own laptop and academic coach.
The school’s current enrollment is 113, after a typical first-week shakeout of students across the city’s public school landscape. (Its target for its first year was 115.) It plans to grow a grade level each school year to eventually include a full high school.
Those first days were a roller coaster, with caffeine supplementing the little sleep for the school’s lean staff. But six months into the school year, students and staff are finding a groove and the roller-coaster ride has smoothed out.
The staff has reinforcements, and the students are getting used to the added freedoms of Kairos’ model.
“It was kind of a hard transfer, because usually I had a schedule and it was built and I knew everything I was going to do. And now that I have more choice, I have more responsibility,” said one student, Katie, 11. “I feel like it’s made me better — rather than just sitting and reading all day, I’m actually doing something.”
Kairos’ philosophy centers on students having much more autonomy than typical adolescents in school. Much of the learning and assignments happen online with teachers serving more as coaches and advisers.
Katie and her classmates spend a lot of time on their laptops. Hers is decorated with stickers, from an astronaut to Nirvana (a Gen X band that’s still cool to the Gen Zer). Sometimes that computer work happens under the gaze of teachers; other times it’s during student’s independent study periods.
“My last school was, like, a typical sit-down-and-read-a-textbook school,” added Katie, who attended Kennard, a gifted elementary school. “And I like this way better because it’s more interactive, and that’s just my preference in learning.”
Kairos’ calendar is also atypical. The days run much longer, with students arriving shortly after 8 a.m. and staying until 5 p.m. (That used to be 6 p.m., before Kairos partnered with the Boys And Girls Club to shuttle student to afterschool care.)
“I think the hardest thing to adjust to [was] I'm used to working 8 to 3,” said McBride, who previously taught fifth grade for St. Louis Public Schools. “And so my time commitment was, like, all school, all the time.”
The school runs for five-week stretches followed by two- or three-week breaks. During that time, the staff holds an inservice to review the previous session.
Co-founders Jack Krewson and Gavin Schiffres, now in their late 20s, have hired three more staff members since August: another English teacher, a counselor and an office manager. Their eyes are less bloodshot from exhaustion than they were in the first days of school.
“We're not waiting to the end of the year to make adjustments,” Schiffres said. “We're trying to do this stuff pretty quickly.”
There was one plan for their first months that didn’t come together. Krewson and Schiffres wanted to take students on a wilderness trip.
“We realized that four weeks was not enough time to build the culture and the expectations and the consistency that we needed to then take students into the wilderness,” Krewson said.
Some of the changes have come at students’ behest. The productivity of the student council could rival a town board. The council, of which Katie is a member, has changed the dress code, planned a dance and installed its own hall monitors.
“I think there are ways in which kids have taken ownership of the school that have even surprised us,” Schiffres said.
Finding a balance
Charter schools are independently operated public schools essentially constrained through state law to the borders of St. Louis and Kansas City. In their two decades in Missouri, many charter schools have struggled to gain a solid footing and remain open. More than a dozen schools have closed between the two cities before they reached their five-year anniversaries.
But the rate of closures is slowing, as is the rate of new schools opening. In large part, that’s because of more scrutiny from sponsors. In Missouri, universities usually watch over charter schools and monitor performance, though a state commission, as in Kairos’ case, can as well.
Applications used to resemble barroom napkin inventions. Kairos’ pitch to the Missouri Charter Public School Commission was 272 pages.
Despite that much planning, it’s impossible to plan for everything. In a school, a major wildcard is the students. Kairos has attracted a wide set of kids. About half are African American and half qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, a federal metric of school poverty. St. Louis Public Schools is 13% white, and the vast majority qualify for free lunch.
“I've been forced to think outside the box some and think about how can I change my own ways to better serve the kids that we have,” McBride said.
Charter schools may feel like startups in some ways. But the scrappiness is constrained by the regulations of education law and responsibility for the well-being of children. There was a tremendous amount of paperwork, Krewson and Schiffres said.
And some really taxing days, emotionally, for the whole staff, as the adrenaline rush of the first days of schools started to wear off.
“The startup phase was like a real personal roller coaster,” Schiffres said. “And I think we've hit a moment of stability here, right, where everyone is getting to a work-life balance, a feeling this is sustainable.”
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