More on Attrition

Fixing the education system.
Sept. 18 2008 10:08 PM

More on Attrition

Speaking  of KIPP:

In Whatever It Takes , in one of the chapters on the Promise Academy  middle school, I describe the impact of the KIPP  schools in the Bronx and Harlem on the Promise Academy’s leaders and staff. This was during the first few years of the Harlem Children Zone’s middle school, which were a struggle, and those KIPP schools, which had very good test results, were for the Promise Academy administrators both a standard to be aspired to and a frustrating reminder that their own students weren’t performing at the same high level as KIPP’s students.

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Terri Grey, the Promise Academy principal at the time, believed the attrition issue was part of what was holding her school back. As she put it to me in one conversation, "At most charter schools, if the school is not a good fit for their child, the school finds a way to counsel parents out"—to firmly suggest, in other words, that their child might be happier elsewhere. "Whereas Promise Academy is taking the most disengaged families and students and saying, 'No, we want you, and we’re trying to keep you here, and we don’t want to counsel you out." That policy made it impossible, she believed, for the Promise Academy to achieve KIPP-like results.

I’m not entirely convinced that that was the real problem at Promise Academy—or that the KIPP schools in New York were actually "counseling out" a significant number of students. But I do think it’s true that Geoffrey Canada’s guiding ethic has always been to go out of his way to attract and retain the most troubled parents and students. And that makes running a school, or any program, more difficult, even if it makes the mission purer and, in the end, more important.

To me, the solution to the attrition issue, whether it’s at a KIPP middle school or the Promise Academy middle school, is the Harlem Children’s Zone’s "conveyor belt" model , which provides continuous, high-quality early-childhood and elementary education to precisely those "disengaged families and students," so that when those children arrive in middle school, they won’t have the kind of difficulty doing demanding work as did the kids who left the Bay Area KIPP schools or who underperformed at the Promise Academy middle school in its first few years.

As Geoffrey Canada put it in one conversation I quote in my book , "The question is, can you build a system where kids in middle school won’t need these kinds of interventions in order to be successful? And my bet—I could be wrong, but this is my bet—is if we start with kids very early, and we provide them with the kind of intense and continuous academic rigor and support that they need, then when they get to the middle school and high school level, we’re not going to need those superhuman strategies at all."

The good news, from my point of view, is that a few KIPP schools are now beginning to follow a similar model. KIPP Houston , the flagship KIPP school, is creating its own version of a conveyor-belt system, one that starts with prekindergarten for 3-year-olds and goes right through high school. To me, that’s a very promising development. And if the model spreads to other KIPP schools, I think this whole attrition debate could before long be a thing of the past.

Paul Tough is the author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character and Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a speaker on various topics including education, poverty, parenting, and politics.

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