Charter Schools
8:48 am
Thu December 5, 2013

Austin Charter Focuses on College Prep Despite New Grad Requirements

The charter school KIPP Austin is announcing a partnership Thursday with St. Edward’s University, in an effort to promote the charter school’s mission to prepare students for college and help them receive a degree.

The private university in South Austin will join more than 40 other colleges and universities nationwide that partner with the nonprofit charter school - including UT Austin and the University of Pennsylvania. 

The partnership comes as public school districts across the state begin implementing new state mandated high school graduation requirements. The requirements allow students to pursue a diploma that prepares them for college or a career. While charter schools like KIPP continue to focus on college, it's unclear what the new requirements that offer career or college preparation mean for low-income students at traditional public schools.

At KIPP College Prep in East Austin, students as early as middle school are constantly reminded they are there to prepare for college. 

In KIPP's high school, one wall is covered with college pennants. The names of alumni who attend those schools is posted underneath. Around campus, there are murals of college and university names are painted outside.

“We just have a deep belief that a college education is the great equalizer," says Steven Epstein, KIPP Austin’s executive director. "And for our students we believe this is a best path for a life full of opportunity, full of choice, and a life without any boundaries.”

KIPP's personal view toward the role of education stands in contrast with many comments made during the recent legislative session and State Board of Education meetings, where lawmakers and education leaders say the new high school graduation requirements under House Bill 5 will allow more flexibility for school districts to provide more options for students who may not apply for college.

“What we want to do is offer something more for those who aren’t going to college,” Rep. Jimmy Don Aycock, the architect of HB 5, told the Dallas Morning News in August.

But at KIPP Austin, students are told college is the goal.

"There are some kids that say 'I don't want to go to college,'" says Paloma Medellin, an eighth grader at KIPP. "But teachers say 'No, you're going to college. You need it and it's going to get you somewhere in life.'"

For KIPP Austin, partnering with local colleges and universities only helps connect students with higher education. Through the new partnership, St. Edward’s says it will accept up to 10 qualified KIPP applicants each year, waive application fees for KIPP students and provide scholarships for at least three KIPP alumni annually. KIPP also appoints one of its alums enrolled at St. Edward's to act as a student ambassador to help new students learn the ropes. Many KIPP graduates are the first in their families to attend college.

“I‘ve been a freshman so I can tell them 'these are the resource you need,'" says sophomore Nohely Najar, KIPP's current student ambassador at St. Edward's.

Since KIPP is a public charter school, it will need to implement the new state graduation requirements passed this year as part of HB 5. Epstein says while KIPP Austin will comply with the law, the emphasis will still be on the college prep pathway.

But under the new graduation requirements, public high schools are no longer required to follow that mindset. By next year, high school freshman will have to choose a path to graduation that prepares them for college or a career. Depending on the path they choose, students won’t have to take courses that many colleges and universities require for acceptance.

“Being that the majority of degree plans no longer require basic things colleges and universities want to see, such as Algebra II, essentially it allows districts to take themselves out of the business of creating students who are college- ready," says Julian Vasquez-Heilig, UT Austin Education Professor.

Last month, the State Board of Education voted not to require Algebra II for graduation. Vasquez-Heilig says that creates a socio-economic divide between who will be prepared for college and who will not.

“We know that suburban schools and some elite charters, what they’ll be able to do is continue to offer [college prep], whereas the students that will be less likely to have availability of courses required for college will essentially impact the pipeline of urban students and rural students into higher education," he says.

And for families who want their children to go to college, partnerships with universities like St. Edward's makes charter schools like KIPP more attractive. Heilig wonders where that leaves traditional public schools.

“Parents and communities don’t have the same choices in their own neighborhood schools. Why doesn’t Reagan doesn’t have partners with Harvard or other Ivy Leagues? I think that’s a question we have to answer. Why is it that charters get favorable treatment in some cases?"

Austin ISD does have a partnership with Austin Community College that allows students to take college credit in high school, but nothing as detailed as the new partnership between KIPP and St. Edward's.

Tracy Manier with St. Edward’s admissions department says the partnership happened because KIPP reached out to the university.

“Part of it is that organizations like KIPP have the resources and have established a culture that is inclined to offering these kinds of partnerships," she says. "I think it was really just the opportunity we were given that we wanted to be a part of.”

This is the first time St. Edwards has created a formal partnership with a high school.

While KIPP says it will continue to emphasize college prep for its students under the new graduation requirements, at an Austin school board work session Monday, superintendent Meria Carstarphen said she also wants to ensure students are college ready.

“Knowing that these things are getting so much earlier in their academic careers, as early as middle school ... we would far prefer our students be on track for a distinguished level of achievement, than already placing them on a track to make them less college bound."

Correction: This article stated KIPP has a partnership with Harvard. It doesn't have a formal partnership with the university.