Breakfast begins at 7:15 at KIPP STAR Elementary, the first elementary charter school in Washington Heights, which opened this fall sharing space with Alexander Humboldt Public School 115. Classes begin at 7:45 and continue until 4p.m. when parents form an orderly queue outside on 177 Street.
During their long day, the 101 kindergarteners — who wear khaki pants and skirts and green shirts with big beige stars,KIPP STAR’s symbol — learn numbers, letters, theater and movement. They have lunch. They take naps.
Unlike Harlem, home to 22 charter schools, Washington Heights previously had only two, Equity Project and New Heights Academy, both opened within the past five* years to serve middle-schoolers. KIPP, which preps mostly African-American and Latino students from poor neighborhoods for college, operates three schools in Harlem and three in the Bronx, yet had none in Washington Heights until this year.
KIPP STAR was also originally planned for Harlem, but space became available at Alexander Humboldt, says principal Anokhi Saraiya.
“It’s a matter of space,” she says, explaining that the Department of Education finds under-enrolled schools in which to house charters. Alexander Humboldt can accommodate 1000 students, but had fewer than 700. “We don’t decide where we open,” Saraiya says. “DOE provides space and we get it.”
Saraiya, who has two master degrees in education and taught at Public School 8 in Washington Heights for eight years, spent three years preparing for her new role. She taught sixth grade at KIPP College Prep in Harlem for a year to learn the charter’s culture. Then she visited KIPP schools around the country to lay out plans for KIPP STAR. It takes a leader to launch a charter school, she says.
To Saraiya, KIPP’s success lies in a teaching approach that focuses on individual students and their needs. KIPP teachers, she says, are always aware of “what students are learning and what they still need to learn.” KIPP assigns two teachers to kindergarten classes so that children can receive small-group instruction when necessary.
Barbara Duran says her son, Daniel Keylap, has adjusted to the long school days. “He’s been in preschool for a long time,” she says. “It’s good, they do a lot.”
Critics argue that KIPP doesn’t serve enough non-native English speakers or students with special needs. But according to KIPP’s statistics, its seven established New York charters serve 99 percent African-American or Latino students, 1,739 children in all. Approximately 23 percent of KIPP STAR students speak Spanish while learning English, so every class has one Spanish-speaking teacher.
Saraiya says the school also employs a speech pathologist who comes three times a week and an occupational therapist. “About 79 percent of our students receive free lunch,” she adds, meaning that they’re from low-income homes.
KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, is a nationwide network of charter schools started by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin in Houston and the South Bronx. KIPP doesn’t require admission testing, but administers a lottery when it gets more applications than there are seats. “We had 309 students originally apply for our school prior to our lottery in April, and we accepted 104 students,” Saraiya says. “Everyone who wins the lottery gets in.”
Jacqueline Tabb, a parent who learned about KIPP from her internet research, was pleasantly surprised when her son was accepted and the principal came to meet the family. “It’s unlike any other school,” she says as she hurries up the stairs to pick up her five-year old.
According to New York City School District 6 data, Washington Heights public schools’ academic proficiency remains low – only about 30 percent of middle school students were proficient in English and 40 percent were proficient in math. However, at Harlem’s KIPP Infinity middle school, students scored an average 53 percent proficiency in English and 85.5 percent proficiency in math, according to the City’s school performance report.
Saraiya says KIPP uses a math teaching method from Singapore, focusing on understanding what numbers mean visually. “We spend a month learning numbers one through five,” Saraiya said. “We look at groups of four or five objects and figure out which group is more than the other or less than the other.”
Lenares Rodriguez, who lives on 193 Street, says her daughter loves the school and always talks about what she did in class. “They teach in small groups of, like, 16 kids,” she said, pointing out that KIPP’s classes are named after famous universities to start developing students’ college ambition early. “My daughter is in a Columbia class and her friend John is in an UCLA Class.”
KIPP STAR will eventually host grades kindergarten through four. Also in the works is KIPP Academy, a school for more than a thousand students, kindergarten through grade 12. It took Washington Heights longer than Harlem to establish its charters, but the neighborhood is catching up.
“We’re hoping to make a break this year,” says Steve Ajani, the New York KIPP co-principal and co-founder.
*Correction: The story originally reported that Washington Heights’s two other charter schools opened within the past three years.