Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Q & A with KIPP Lynn Principal Anna Breen

KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is a network of college preparatory charter schools first established in 1994 by Teach for America (TFA) alums Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin. It has been widely successful and is currently the largest network of charter schools in the United States with 30 elementary schools, 61 middle schools and 18 high schools enrolling over 32,000 students nationwide. KIPP schools are located in cities such as Austin, New Orleans, Denver and our very own Lynn, Massachusetts.

KIPP Lynn (KAL) was established in 2004 and currently serves grades 5-9, but will serves grades 5-12 in the year 2014 after its expansion has been completed. Just over 84% of the student body are ethnic minorities (African American, Hispanic, Asian) and 88.9% are low income. In terms of standardized testing (the MCAS), the school has done well with 65% of its students achieving proficient or higher in English and 56% achieving proficient or better in the math on the Spring 2011 exam. For more specific results and a comparison to other Lynn public middle schools, see here, here, and here.

The following is a Q & A with Anna Breen, principal of the KAL Middle School and a fellow Wellesley graduate ('96). After graduating from Wellesley with a degree in environmental science, Ms. Breen completed a two-year stint with TFA in New York City. She went on to teach English, math and science at a KIPP Academy in the Bronx for 5 years and then taught at a public school in Virginia before moving to Massachusetts in 2004 to help establish KAL as a 5th grade math teacher. Ms. Breen, who currently lives in Lynn with her family, was promoted to Assistant Principal in 2006 and recently took on the role of Principal of KAL. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions about KAL, the charter/public school comparison and education in general.

Why do you think having a charter school like KIPP is beneficial to the city of Lynn?

Breen: The mission of KIPP is to help students graduate from college who, under normal circumstances, would not have that opportunity.  Students of color from places like Lynn graduate from college at an 8% rate.  We intend to do much better than that with our students.  One child going to college has a positive effect on the entire family, and if enough students from KIPP graduate from college, I believe we can transform this community.  If you look at the biggest struggles facing Lynn, gangs, drugs, and violence, I believe education is the best way to address them.

What, in your opinion, are the top three attributes/school policies that makes KIPP successful?

Breen: The most important thing that makes us successful is our excellent teachers.  Our teachers work extremely hard, constantly learn, and are willing to do whatever it takes to help students succeed.  A second important factor in our success is extra time.  During the school year, our students spend 50% more time in school than their counterparts in Lynn public schools.  Extra practice leads to more success.  A third factor is our family involvement.  We view parents as our partners and do whatever we can to help them be involved, including night-time parent classes.

KIPP tends to do well on standardized test scores like the MCAS. Is testing the main focus of a KIPP education?

Breen: Absolutely not.  The main focus of a KIPP education is college readiness.  We believe, however, that excellent teaching produces excellent test scores, and that our test scores reflect knowledge that our students possess.

Do you think that it's appropriate or even fair to compare KIPP's test results to other Lynn middle schools like Marshall or Breed? Why or why not?

Breen: Yes and no.  KIPP's test scores can be compared to those of Lynn public schools because we are working with the same population, and I believe that our test scores show that students from Lynn, especially poor students and students of color, can be successful.  At the same time, I think that the beauty of charter schools is the ability to innovate and use whatever methods we choose, and only be held accountable for our results.  The public schools do not have that luxury and are much more bound by traditional rules and methods.  Furthermore, public school principals do not have the power to lead and to hire and fire as I and other KIPP principals do.  So since public schools have limitations that we do not have, they may feel it is unfair to compare our results to theirs.

Do you think it would ever be possible to replicate KIPP's success in other Lynn public schools without converting to charters?

Breen: I think many of the methods we use could be replicated in Lynn public schools.  For example, many public schools have already adopted an extended day and year, to give students more time learning.  Our high behavioral standards, rewards and consequences, and teaching techniques could all be used by any school.  At the same time, as I discussed in my previous answer, it is a lot harder for public schools to make changes, and at the end of the day, I believe that for a principal to be effective, he/she must be able to hire, fire, and train his/her teachers.

 It seems that KIPP puts a lot of the responsibility for student success on teachers.  How much ownership should students have in their own success and achievement?

Breen: Ultimately a student will be most successful if all three partners (staff, parents, and student) are working together.  At the same time, we are a public school and do not see our mission as only educating the most motivated students, so teachers are responsible for finding ways to engage the students.

 Anything else you would like to add?

Breen: I would like to say that I have the greatest respect for anyone involved in educating the students of Lynn.  Instead of focusing on differences between KIPP and Lynn public schools, I wish more attention would be paid to the differences in resources between Lynn students and students from the neighboring, more affluent communities like Marblehead and Swampscott.  Let's focus on the institutionalized racism and class system that got us to this point where so few students from communities like Lynn have a chance to be successful.  At KIPP we can change the community by helping our students to and through college, but ultimately all students should have the opportunity to have an excellent education, and that's not how it works in this country right now.

For more information a KAL:

For more information about the KIPP network:

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