Empowered to learn

Beginning its first year as a charter school, KIPP Tulsa continues to prepare students for success in college and in life.



Twins Kerrigan and Ty Hall are eighth-graders at KIPP Tulsa this year. Kerrigan says her favorite part of attending KIPP is the end-of-year “field lessons” to cities around the country. Ty says he likes the hands-on learning opportunities at the school. Read more about Kerrigan and Ty in “Proud Kippsters” on p. 50.

(page 1 of 4)

In late June, nearly 100 incoming fifth-graders and other new students converged at KIPP Tulsa, a college-preparatory public middle school in north Tulsa, for five days of summer school. From 7:45 a.m.-3 p.m., they got to know their teachers; bonded with students in their grade, or “teams”; and learned the ins and outs of the distinctive KIPP culture.

By Friday, the change from traditional fifth-graders to KIPP fifth-graders was evident. Anytime the students had to wait, whether in line to go to lunch or to talk to a teacher, they “assigned themselves,” taking out books in an effort to spend any spare moment learning. Before leaving a classroom, students quietly stood; pushed in their chairs; and, row by row, formed a line, walking silently and “with urgency” to their destination.

In a math class, students learned to “roll their numbers,” an approach to memorizing multiplication tables through reciting catchy, unison chants. When they performed well, they were encouraged to give themselves a hand, then to give themselves another hand and finally, at their teacher’s instruction, “Show yourselves some love.”

This focus on positive reinforcement was also evident in the banners hanging on classroom walls: “If there is a better way, we find it.” “Knowledge is power.” “All of us will learn.” “If we need help, we ask.” And the mandate that also graces teachers’ uniform polo shirts: “Work hard. Be nice.”

KIPP Tulsa, which serves 330 students in the fifth through eighth grades, is part of the national Knowledge is Power Program, a network of tuition-free, open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools that focuses on reaching students in underserved communities.

Thanks to the school’s emphasis on high expectations, extended classroom time, effective leaders and student performance, KIPP Tulsa students, 95 percent of whom are African American and Latino and 86 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch, are making significant academic gains and finishing the eighth grade ready to enter college-preparatory high school programs. In fact, all “KIPPsters” will spend their first day of school on a college campus.

It’s all designed to send a clear message to KIPP students, says John Wolfkill, KIPP Tulsa’s executive director.

“It is about getting through and to college,” he says.

In this, its eighth year, KIPP Tulsa is poised to make further gains. Following the model of KIPP’s 125 other schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, KIPP Tulsa achieved charter status July 1, providing an opportunity to grow its program to serve even more students.

A new approach

KIPP Tulsa began in 2005 at the suggestion of a Tulsa Public Schools task force evaluating uses for the previous Woods Elementary School facility next to Booker T. Washington High School. The task force was looking for a unique kind of school to partner with TPS, and the KIPP model, which was seeing impressive results in underserved minority student populations nationwide, seemed like the perfect choice.

The school’s first leader was Millard House, who, as principal of Anderson Elementary, helped that school increase its Academic Performance Index from 121 to almost 1,200 in five years.

“My kids were leaving at high levels, were proficient and advanced, and I wanted something in the neighborhood that would allow them to go to middle school,” he says.

In 2004, House was selected to attend a one-year program preparing him to found and lead a new KIPP school in an underserved community. A year later, he returned to his hometown to launch KIPP Tulsa less than a quarter of a mile away from the elementary school that inspired him.

In KIPP’s first year, the school welcomed 90 fifth-graders to a temporary home at the former Lindsey Elementary facility. In the school’s second year, it moved to its current location at 1661 E. Virgin St. and added sixth grade and welcomed a new crop of fifth-graders.

House saw continual improvements in student achievement during the four years he spent as school leader.

“We saw more and more students that had the opportunity to move forward, to accomplish that goal of being college ready and college bound,” he says.

John Wolfkill became KIPP Tulsa’s first executive director in 2011. Formerly director of administration and donor partnerships at Tulsa Community Foundation, Wolfkill says he wanted to become part of an organization that helps students, particularly minority students, graduate high school ready to be successful in college.House attributes KIPP Tulsa’s effectiveness to two key factors: time on task and effective teachers. Because of a longer school day, mandatory Saturday school and summer school, and after-school programming, KIPP students receive 60 percent more instruction and more than 500 additional hours of instruction than students in traditional public schools, he says. Teachers also work a 10- to 12-hour school day.

As the first KIPP Tulsa fifth-graders enter their senior year of high school this year, House says that he is impressed with the growth at KIPP and the work of its board and school leaders.

“They’ve kept the spirit alive, and they’ve kept the expectation alive that kids climb that mountain to college,” he says.

High expectations

When John Wolfkill learned that only 7 percent of TPS graduates (and just 1 to 2 percent of African American and Hispanic students) are ready for college, it was a “gut-check moment,” he says. He decided he wanted to become involved. 

A little over two years later, the former Tulsa Community Foundation executive became KIPP Tulsa’s first executive director.

Wolfkill says that for many KIPP students, college was an enigma, and they may be the first in their families to attend.

“You can’t discount the importance of having a mind-set to college, and … the mind-set of high expectations and the growth of all students,” he says. “We have the high expectation that all students can and will learn. It’s not based on how smart you’re born, but intelligence is earned by lots of effort.

“And that, I think, makes KIPP a very special place. We set high expectations for behavior. We set high expectations for academics, for character. And we follow up on that; we focus on results. We look at the data on an individual student basis. What is the data telling us, and how do we change our practice to better support that student?”

Although KIPP Tulsa has made great strides, with every new fifth-grade class comes new challenges. In 2011 alone, 64 percent of incoming KIPP Tulsa fifth-graders were below grade level in reading and 67 percent were below grade level in math, Wolfkill says. As a result, he says, more time with students during the school day, as well as on weekends, is crucial.

KIPP Tulsa also encourages scholarship through engaging approaches to learning, from the multiplication-table chants to songs used in social studies classes to help students learn directions.

To promote good behavior, students gain and lose points toward a weekly paycheck, which could earn them a trip to a bowling alley or skating rink during the year and, ultimately, a spot on the roster to attend one of KIPP Tulsa’s end-of-year “field lessons,” which take students to major cities such as Chicago and New York.

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August 2019

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