The controversy over the proposal to expand the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), starting with the takeover of a neighborhood school building, prompted me to go back to my files and reread accounts of my days in the neighborhood served by Moon Elementary School.
‘Intense interactions’ at Moon
I had many intense interactions with Moon M.S. students. Almost all of those experiences were wonderful, and they changed my life.
Many students who attended the old middle school had repeatedly ridden on my back as I swam the width of the pool of the nearby Foster Center until I was too exhausted to climb out of the water without the ladder.
Some had chastised me for driving off a white junkie, and they did so in a way that will always remind me of their generosity of spirit. When I visited the crack houses where some students lived, I negotiated with the guard dogs. After holding a Moon student all night as he endured a migraine headache, I had new insights into how he became the most feared gangbanger at the school.
When a half-dozen Moon students knocked on my wife’s and my front door, crying after witnessing a murder, they gave me a crash course on what it would take to teach in a neighborhood school. A controversial, high-profile Moon student essentially functioned as my assistant principal and technology expert during our summer camping program.
I have never doubted those kids’ abilities to succeed in a system that celebrates their full humanity.
During the 1990s, teaching at John Marshall High School was a breeze in comparison to teaching at Moon. The middle school was cited in Harpers Index after 80 percent of the 6th graders were suspended due to a lunchroom food fight. A few minutes after I first met its principal, Tracy McDaniel, the school’s security guard — and its wisest mentor — described the recent arrival of a new student in the back of a deputy sheriff’s car. The deputy took the handcuffs off and said, “He’s yours, now. Good luck.”
Situations like that were so frequent that even these loving adults did not have the time to ask what the arriving student felt when he heard those words.
School choice proliferates
By the end of my career at Centennial, the proliferation of school choice had recreated the extreme concentrations of kids who had endured the terrible trauma that I had seen at Moon. Since I had campaigned for Barack Obama (and would continue to support him despite his awful mistake of adopting the full corporate-reform agenda), I was offended when then-Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, repeated the slander that so pains inner-city teachers: Duncan inaccurately praised Oklahoma City’s KIPP for serving, “the same students in the same building.”
No soundbite is more demeaning to inner-city teachers than Duncan’s implication that No Excuses charter schools show how teachers in neighborhood schools could establish the orderly environment necessary for improving student performance. The Oklahoma City KIPP, like most KIPP schools, did great work, but the 123 KIPPsters who replaced Moon’s (remaining) 501 kids were not “the same.” It is not criticism of the charter teachers to recall that it took seven years for KIPP to expand to serving half as many of the students as the school it replaced. KIPP accepted and retained as many high-challenge students as it could handle, but that is a far cry from what teachers and administrators do in the neighborhood schools: serve everyone who walks in the door, or who shows up in the back of a police cruiser.
Blood in the halls
Before Duncan’s presentation, I told some old friends (political movers and shakers who had known me during my previous careers in more respected professions) that I had “lost some blood” at school. My friends laughed, assumed I was speaking metaphorically, and asked what the issue was.
In fact, I had just tackled an aggressor in a particularly brutal fight. I found myself on the ground, terrified that I would seriously hurt him. I had a choke hold on the student, but when I relaxed it, he would continue to inflict punishment on the victim underneath. I outweighed the assailant by 100 pounds, but he seemed to have superhuman strength.
The next hour, I was downstairs passing on my information about the assault when I saw a blur and heard a terrible crunching sound. The aggressor had broken loose from a policeman and thrown a vicious sucker punch. As new blood poured from the victim, he staggered and then fell back to his knees.
The previous semester, the assailant attacked a teacher, sending him to the hospital. Before concluding that OKCPS should have just expelled the aggressor, it should be remembered that he had endured as many adverse childhood experiences as his victim had, and the district was in the process of making severe cuts in its already overburdened alternative schools.
‘It can’t get worse’
My experience at Moon and elsewhere helps explain why both sides in this charter-expansion controversy are so angry. In my rereading about the conditions in the old Moon Middle School, an obvious question emerged:
Since KIPP promises to enroll every neighborhood student who applies — and do its best to retain most of them — what percentage of neighborhood school students in the old Moon building are accepted and retained in KIPP?
And that brings us back to the reason why Oklahoma City is still torn over the charter plan. Most patrons and teachers (I suspect) are extremely frustrated with the failure of the OKCPS to do what it takes to create safe and orderly schools. But, too often in this and previous arguments about charters, I hear statements such as, “It can’t get worse,” and, “We’ve got to try something new.” So, there is a temptation to grasp at the KIPP straw and hope that it can serve a much greater number of students.
After a decade and a half, however, KIPP serves a much lower percentage of low-income students than neighborhood middle schools, (76 percent vs. 90-plus percent), and it still serves about one-third as many special-education students. It co-locates with Moon Elementary, where 21 percent of the students are homeless. It has been rumored that the KIPP would be housed in Martin Luther King, where 17.2 percent are homeless. Only 1 percent of KIPP’s students are homeless.
KIPP serves very few transient students; last year, it began with 302 students and served a total of 315. Meanwhile, Moon began with 434 students and served 582, meaning that the average Moon student was enrolled for only 128 days, or 26 days less than the average KIPP student. Despite serving nearly twice as many students as KIPP, last year Moon suspended only 35 students out of school. KIPP had 189 suspensions, or roughly 12 times as many per student. And that brings us back to the unanswered question: What percentage of Moon students did KIPP welcome and retain?
Charters make sense — for some
If parents’ only choices are the often brutal middle schools or No Excuses charters, then KIPP and other charters look good for those who can handle its structure. However, pushing down the KIPP/No Excuses model to elementary and even pre-kindergarten students could produce a disaster. If we conclude that it is impossible to fund full-service community schools and embrace wraparound services for our poorest children, charters will make sense as a lifeboat — for a few kids.
Let’s not fool ourselves, however, and pretend that KIPP and other charters can be scaled up and take over neighborhood schools without pushing huge numbers of suffering children out of school.