May 26, 2007

State Warns KIPP School to Shape Up or Be Closed: EDUCATION

By Peter Simon, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

May 26--Buffalo's KIPP Sankofa Charter School, considered a promising alternative for inner-city middle school students when it opened in 1993, is plagued by failure and is fighting for its life.

The school, located in the Central Park Plaza, was recently cited by the state's Charter Schools Institute for low test scores, high teacher turnover, severe disciplinary problems, poor teacher training and failure to use test score data to guide instruction.

The KIPP Foundation, a school management group based in San Francisco, has severed its ties with the school, and Uchenna Smith, KIPP Sankofa's founder and director, has resigned.

Unless the school shows dramatic improvement by next fall, the state institute said, it will be closed when its charter expires after the 2007-08 school year or, at best, be given a short term renewal rather than a second five-year license.

A reform plan has been put together to turn the school around, said Samuel J. Savarino, a local developer who became board chairman of the school several months ago.

"We anticipate being able to demonstrate that we have aggressively and effectively addressed the problems you noted that have plagued the school since its inception," Savarino said in a letter to the Charter Schools Institute, which makes licensing recommendations to the State University of New York.

"Our relationship with KIPP has been unsatisfactory -- on both sides -- and we are using a variety of local, trusted consultants and advisers to guide our renaissance," Savarino said.

The school will strengthen assessment of individual students, stress its discipline policy and train teachers in classroom management, reorganize its board of directors and shorten the teachers' current 10-hour work day, Savarino said.

The institute acknowledged those efforts in a letter to the school last month but said "it is unclear whether these and other actions will result in visible and qualitatively discernible results" before the pivotal fall evaluation. An April 20 letter to KIPP Sankofa from Jennifer G. Sneed, the institute's senior vice president, said the school's problems are severe and deeply rooted. For example:

--KIPP Sankofa's top three administrators were so busy serving as substitute teachers that they were unable to perform their leadership duties.

"The school's eighth-graders have had four English teachers, three science teachers and two social studies teachers," it said.

--In a school with fewer than 250 students in grades 5-8, there have been from 12 to 25 referrals to the office per day and 178 suspensions as of late March. In addition, two teachers "resorted to violence in response to disruptive students" and were fired.

--Last year, just 37 percent of KIPP's seventh-graders who had been at the school at least two years were proficient in English and math.

SUNY on Thursday will consider recommendations from the Charter Schools Institute to allow the school to drop the KIPP title from its name, and to require it to increase its reserve fund to $75,000 from $25,000 to cover any costs it might incur if it is forced to close.

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