TeAndrea Jackson will tell you that many of her neighbors don’t know what a private school is. She lives in Dellway Villas, an East Nashville apartment complex that she says people may have heard about on the news, “because someone got shot.”
This fall, Jackson will start attending private Harpeth Hall, nestled between Belle Meade and Green Hills. She’s getting a $17,250 annual scholarship, plus a monetary prize associated with being one of two winners of her middle school’s Conqueror’s Award.
She’s ready to take on the world.
“It means something to me that I actually got accepted to Harpeth Hall. The people in my neighborhood, they don’t even know what a private school is,” Jackson said. “They think they’re stuck in the ghetto, but they’re not.”
Jackson is one member of KIPP Academy Nashville’s first graduating class, and is not by any means the only student planning to attend an illustrious high school this fall. KIPP’s eighth-grade commencement ceremony this spring had the air of a high school graduation. Kids tearfully hugged their friends and teachers, and there was much talk of scholarships and choices of their next schools.
Half of KIPP’s first class of eighth-graders will transition from their public charter school to private, independent schools this fall, made possible by earning some hefty scholarships. One student will attend and board at Phillips Exeter Academy, the famous New Hampshire school with alumni ranging from Daniel Webster to John Irving. Another will attend the Baylor School of Chattanooga.
Others will attend schools closer to home, including Harpeth Hall, the University School of Nashville, the Ensworth School, Brentwood Academy, and St. Cecelia Academy. The rest of the outgoing eighth-graders will attend Metro magnet schools or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs.
Zoned schools not a good option
At the commencement ceremony, KIPP staff member Adrianna Bond — who worked full-time this school year to place KIPP kids at high schools — made it clear to the students that she doesn’t consider the zoned high schools most of the KIPP kids would have attended by default to be very good options.
One of those Metro public schools, Stratford High, has a graduation rate of 64.6 percent, according to 2008 Tennessee Report Card data. The other school Bond referenced, Maplewood, has a much-improved graduation rate of 69.3 percent.
Bond doesn’t like those odds.
“We’re all going to college, and we’re all going together,” Bond told the students, her voice breaking with emotion. “The bottom line is, 100 percent of our students are going to college-prep high schools.”
Starting next year, Bond’s high school placement job will expand to include maintaining contact with all KIPP graduates, and providing the students and their families with support to start college in 2013.
According to KIPP students, one of the first things they learned at the school was the year of college graduation. Each class of KIPP students is known by the year they’ll graduate from high school, not middle school, so the outgoing eighth-graders are known as the “Class of 2013.”
The Class of 2013 started visiting high school campuses when they were in sixth grade, to get them thinking about their futures as soon as possible, according to KIPP School Leader Randy Dowell.
These visits are the reason that Jackson, for example, is able to say that she’s visited Harpeth Hall “about 500 times” and knows she’d rather attend there than at renowned Metro magnet schools Hume-Fogg and Martin Luther King Jr., where she was also accepted.
The Class of 2013 has also taken overnight trips each year. Destinations ranged from Wasington, D.C. — where then-Sen. Bill Frist threw them a reception — to the Smoky Mountains. Such experiences helped kids thinking about college, Dowell said, by giving them educational experiences with their peers away from home.
Very recent KIPP alumni Shelda Gedeus and LaTrya Gordon agreed that the college theme repetition makes a difference.
“After so many years of people telling you how much they believe in you … once people keep telling you that, you start to believe it,” Gordon said. “You know, in your heart, that they really want you to go to college. If somebody really wants me to do something, I’m going to want to follow up on what they’re saying.”
The girls plan to take Metro Transit Authority (MTA) buses from East Nashville to attend the business magnet program at Metro’s Pearl-Cohn High this fall. Gordon said she’s glad she won’t be attending Stratford this fall, because of all the “neighborhood drama” that tends to follow kids from her neighborhood to school there. That kind of drama takes the “focus” away from college, according to Gedeus.
All in the family at KIPP
Michael Grimes, who’s attending the University School of Nashville this fall and wants to be either a doctor or a lawyer someday, spent his eighth-grade year getting up every morning at 5 a.m. He boarded an MTA bus near his Antioch home at 6 a.m., and arrived at KIPP in time for school’s start just before 8 a.m.
Then he did it all again in the evening, including the days school let out at 5 p.m.
It was worth it, he said.
“Everybody says the teachers really care for you, and they really do,” Grimes said.
At KIPP, teachers give their personal cell phone numbers to students. Kids take teachers up on the offer, calling up their instructors about everything from home life to homework.
Gordon, who plans to ride the MTA bus to Pearl-Cohn starting this fall, said she most recently called up one of her teachers after-hours to inquire about the city bus schedule.
Jamesheia Brandon is one of several eighth-grade girls <i>The City Paper</i> spoke with who visibly had to work to keep herself from crying as she talked about how much she hated to leave the school. Those in the KIPP universe refer to themselves as a family, and Brandon said the bond is real. She said Dowell is like a “big brother” to her.
“When I first came here, I thought it was just … a charter school [with] too much homework, too many classes, long hours. But that’s really not it. If you notice, we have a bond. When we say team and family, we actually mean it. We don’t criticize the phrase. We mean it from the heart,” Brandon said. “It’s sad for me to go, but at the same time, I have no choice.”
Brandon will attend MNPS’s Nashville School of the Arts this fall, where she plans to sharpen her dancing acumen.
Students take long strides
KIPP staff and students may be justified in their emotions. This class of eighth-graders has made huge gains in their time at the school, results earned through attending class until 5 p.m. on many school days and going to school during the summer.
Dowell points to data showing that the KIPP students have moved ahead each academic year by as much as one and a half to two grade levels. Nashville KIPP students take the nationally standardized Stanford 10 exam a few weeks after starting at KIPP, and again at the end of each school year.
When the Class of 2013 started fifth grade at the school, the kids scored, on average, at about a second-grade level. By the end of seventh grade, the kids had made up for the lost time, scoring on average at their appropriate grade level requirements. KIPP will learn the kids’ eighth-grade test scores in the next few weeks, and Dowell expects the students to have reached high school achievement levels.
Being found proficient by this test is widely considered to be tougher than meeting the proficiency requirements of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) tests. Tennessee’s standards have been nationally ranked as lagging behind those of the rest of the nation, though state officials say that’s due to change in the next couple of years.
In the meantime, Dowell considers that standards gap to be a good reason for KIPP students to take tests based on national standards, in addition to the TCAP tests.
“It’s a national market of kids applying for college,” Dowell said. “The state test isn’t necessarily too easy. But what’s required to pass is such a low percentage correct.”
KIPP, for its part, has more than met federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) benchmarks for the TCAP tests. More than 90 percent of KIPP students earned advanced or proficient scores on the TCAP in the 2007-2008 school year.
This fall, members of the Class of 2013 will be scattered. On the last day of KIPP classes this year, members of the Class of 2013 were encouraged to wear “KIPP Alumni” T-shirts to school, to show their peers what KIPP graduates look like.
Dowell said he expects the kids to keep coming back, a sentiment that many students expressed in interviews.
“Once I leave KIPP, I will still come back to KIPP to volunteer,” Gedeus said. “KIPP has made me who I am.”