Two top-flight charters set to open in Columbus

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (our sister organization) is excited to be sponsoring two new charter schools opening in August in Columbus. They will be run by exceptional young school leaders with extensive school leadership training from two of the nation's premier school management programs-the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) (see here) and Building Excellent Schools (BES) (see here). The KIPP Journey Academy is located in the Linden Park neighborhood and ultimately will serve 331 students in grades five through eight when it is at full enrollment in 2012-2013. In 2008, KIPP Journey expects to serve 96 fifth graders. The Columbus Collegiate Academy is located in the Weinland Park neighborhood and ultimately will serve 336 students in grades six through eight when it is at full enrollment in 2011-2012. In 2008, the Columbus Collegiate Academy expects to serve 112 sixth graders.

We believe strongly that the efforts of KIPP Journey school leader Carina Robinson and Columbus Collegiate Academy school leader Andrew Boy will pay big dividends for the children they are privileged to educate.

Carina Robinson, originally from Cleveland, is the founding school leader of KIPP Journey Academy and a graduate of the KIPP School Leadership Program. She taught sixth-grade math at the KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore, Md., and, prior to joining KIPP, Carina taught for 10 years in Ohio.

Andrew Boy spent five years at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Cincinnati, an urban charter school where he designed the science program and was science lab director. From 2005 to 2006, he was lead teacher for CSRIC, a new school within the DuBois school network. In 2006, Andrew joined the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship in Boston.

We look forward to seeing these schools grow and excel in the coming years. We know these educators are dedicated to helping all their children fulfill their potential and live out their dreams, and we are honored to introduce these two leaders to Gadfly readers in the Q&A below.

Q. What are you anticipating is going to happen that first day when kids come to class?

Carina: Wow! ...This is crucial to the rest of the year. [You] talk about this with your teachers. When they (students) come in you want them to know that this is a place that is safe, that it is structured. We have a plan that, together, is going to be successful for all of us. We don't want them to come and it appears that we don't know what we are doing. Day One with the kids is who are we and why we are here. That is the message of the day for the kids-the same thing you do with your staff.

Andrew: What I think about the night before are the speeches that I am going to give to the kids. How (are they) going to be delivered? What's different about us? How this school is different from anywhere else you've been? That is really the underlying theme for the first day. Why it is cool to go to school here? Why it is cool to come to school in a uniform. Why this is a safe place to be who you are.

Q. Do you still find that parents are surprised, for example, with the emphasis on a dress code, even though you may have talked about uniforms with them a half a dozen times?

Carina: Yes. They hear you, but are we serious? Maybe if I come to school with my shirt a little untucked, maybe they (the teachers) won't say anything. It is the idea that you really do have those high expectations that you talk about....The KIPP shirt is about who I am. I am going to go to college in 2016. I do work hard. I am nice and the shirt is an extension of that. It truly speaks to who they believe they are and who we want them to believe they are.

Andrew: We sweat the small stuff. It starts with what you wear when you come to school, how you go to the bathroom, how you walk from one classroom to the next, and so, when you really pay attention to the small stuff, it alleviates the bigger problems that can come from working with the age group that we work with.

Q. You lay it all out in a home visit?

Carina: There was one home visit where that was tested. I went through the whole thing and the mom really wanted this. The child broke into tears. She started crying and stated that she didn't want to go. It was at that point I said, "Whoa". I looked at the mom and said that this is a three-way agreement-it is teacher, parent, and child. In order for this to work, it is going to take all of us working hard. I cannot work hard for you if you're not willing to try it. I got up and I left. It was a week and a half later that mom called me back and said that her daughter was ready.

Andrew: The reasons [for not coming to the school] are usually tied to things like, "I won't know anybody at your school because my friends aren't going there," or "I play sports after school and I can't be in school until 4:30." Those are reasons why we have lost kids....I've also had a parent who said that, "It is a lot of homework and my child gets stressed out easily and I don't know if it is going to be good for her health." My retort there is that it is certainly going to be challenging, life is going to be challenging, and there is no better time than right now to begin to learn how to deal with those challenges.

Q. Is discipline, following rules, a key to kids learning when they go to your schools?

Carina: The kids I'm going to get have not been held accountable to established rules and norms.... So in the first year, it is going to be that you will be held very, very accountable, and these are the things that are set in place. The goal is that once those basics are in place, and we've had the opportunity to address their bad habits that have compounded over the years, then we can take it to the next level....We have been thinking about how we are going to scaffold the discipline program in our school, so fifth grade will look very different to eighth grade.

Andrew: We will have a gradual release of responsibility and so you have to set up that culture because, number one, you have to maximize their time. We are receiving our sixth graders at third- and fourth-grade reading levels and if we don't have structure and we are lax about things, we will never get them caught up.

Q. Was it difficult to find excellent teachers?

Carina: Yes. I will say that, for me, it was a blessing that I have some KIPP teachers that come from the KIPP network. They had family ties here in Ohio and they wanted to move back home. So that was very helpful, but for me, even with the teachers that came from KIPP, it was important for me to see them teach....

Andrew: I received approximately 500 resumes. I probably took 250 people through the selection process to find seven teachers....It was really tough to find someone who believes in the exact mission and vision that we do. That is a definite, number one prerequisite.

Q. What has been the easiest thing about starting a school in Columbus?

Carina: I have a great board of directors. They have been amazing with their amount of support. I think it has been more work than they thought it was going to be.

Andrew: The easiest thing about being in Columbus is that you have the leaders in school reform just a drive away from you. You have School Choice Ohio, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, KidsOhio.org, and BAEO (Black Alliance for Educational Options) and, if you need information or have an issue, you can call any one of those organizations and they will do almost anything to help you.

Q. What has been the biggest challenge you've faced?

Carina: Student recruitment, because of the fact that KIPP schools have excellent reputations across the country. Then you come to Ohio where only 10 percent of the charter schools are effective-that's 30 out of 300. And then just in Columbus, in general, there are so many of them that aren't doing well, it's trying to get the buy-in of the parents....I am trying to get them to understand that this a high-quality charter school and you really need to be examining the choices that you make....The other thing is that I'm only recruiting for fifth grade. A lot of the other charter schools are K-8 and I have families who have four kids and they want all of those four kids to go to the same school....

Andrew: The most challenging piece has been with facilities; with student recruitment a close second....As Carina said, the names BES and KIPP don't mean a hill of beans here in Columbus. We can go to a lot of other metropolitan areas and, there is a little bit of pull there. No disrespect to the organizations that are not KIPP or BES, let's just say Columbus has not arrived at what works totally yet.

Q. Have the nay-sayers had any affect?

Carina: In the living rooms of the parent's I sit with, it is never a concern. They say, "Wow, you are here. I've never had a principal sit down with me and tell me what they are going to do with my child and what their commitment is." That is the conversation that drives me every single day.

Andrew: I listen to those [negative] comments and some of those...are erroneous and have no merit. Like Carina, I don't lose any sleep over it....When I tell parents that they have to withdraw the child from their current school and they go to their school and the school tells them, "Hey, you don't want to go to a charter school. They have uncertified teachers. They just want the money," and so I face some of that. Like Carina, when I sit and face the parents and they see the passion, the dedication that I have...and the personal touch I am able to give to them because we only have 112 students, they say to themselves, "I want to trust this person."

Q. Is the Columbus market looking receptive to your efforts?

Carina: Yes....What excited me is that we can begin to spark the idea that there are high-quality choices and really put a different face on charter schools. I'm thinking about a different face statewide for charter schools. We just don't have a lot of positive images of charter schools in this state. They are completely overshadowed by all of the negative things that occur.

Andrew: I have a really great organization, Building Excellent Schools, behind me. I have a great sponsor, The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and I think that when you associate yourself with great people, and you put yourself in situations where you have awesome people working under you, that it is hard to think negatively....I know that we both face a tremendous amount of pressure to be successful.

Q. How serious was the conversation of your organizations about not coming here?

Carina: I can't say that I honestly know the answer to that because that process took place prior to me knowing that I was actually coming here. Columbus really had to sell itself to the KIPP Foundation as far as a place that KIPP should come and open a school. I can't say that I know what those conversations sounded like.

Andrew: We are the second BES...school in Ohio-the other one is in Cleveland. What I know are the challenges we faced this past year has caused BES to pause and really think about whether they want to move forward in Ohio. It is going to take both of our schools to do to well before they would consider it again. So, yes, this atmosphere is one that really has said to a great organization like Building Excellent Schools, You're not as welcome here as you are in other cities such as Boston, Washington, D.C., or New York City.

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