The flexibility that charter schools have in choosing whether to fill vacated seats with new students, also known as “backfilling,” has long been the subject of controversy. Critics of charters argue that a school’s statistics can be improved by choosing not to replace students who leave and point out that neighborhood public schools do not have that option because they have to accept every student in the catchment area who shows up wanting an education.
“We have heard estimates that there are 1,400 empty seats in charter schools during any given year, even while many charters claim to have long wait lists,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym in a statement this month, citing data obtained from the District Finance Office. Having “empty seats in charters — whether they open up because students are forced to leave or leave on their own — is a major point of contention for those who care about improving accountability and leveling the playing field between charter and public schools.”
KIPP Philadelphia cites a college-graduation rate – 35 percent for students who graduated from its original city middle school – far exceeding the 9 percent rate for low-income students nationally. But the statistic has come under fire from education blogger Gary Rubinstein, a public school math teacher in New York City, who called it “nothing more than a lie generated by KIPP’s PR department” because students who left between 5th and 8th grades were not replaced.
Although Rubinstein’s language was hyperbolic, data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education confirm his statement about KIPP middle schools in Philadelphia — at least until recently.
KIPP’s 35 percent college graduation rate was for the graduating class of 8th graders in 2007 — the first cohort of KIPP students who graduated from the KIPP Philadelphia middle school.
That cohort contained just 33 students in 8th grade, but when the same cohort entered 5th grade at the school, it had 86 students. In other words, most of the original students either left or were removed from KIPP Philadelphia’s middle school before 8th grade and so were not counted in KIPP’s graduation statistic. KIPP could have replenished its enrollment by using the lottery process to add students in higher grades at the beginning of each school year, but it did not do this for its inaugural Philadelphia class.
Presumably, this practice leaves a school with a cohort of the students with the best academic and behavioral records. The 9 percent graduation figure refers to all students coming from households in the lowest income quartile.
If KIPP had used the number from the 5th-grade cohort, of 86 students, KIPP’s college graduation rate would drop from 35 percent to 19 percent — assuming that the 53 students who left KIPP graduated at the 9 percent rate.
“There will always be students who arrive in the middle of the school year or students who need to start in a new high school in 10th or 11th grade. It is unfair that the burden for serving students in these situations falls so heavily on the District’s neighborhood schools,” Gym said in her statement, which did not refer to KIPP specifically. “Charters that only fill empty seats when they feel like it are rigging the system, and claims of higher graduation rates or higher student achievement at such schools must take into account that they benefit from such practices — while public schools lose.”
Why students left KIPP in the early years can't be directly traced, but two out of the three KIPP Philadelphia schools with available Charter School Evaluations were criticized by the Charter Schools Office for harsh discipline policies — or failing to follow federal guidance on “clear and proportional consequences for misbehavior.”
“The school’s code allows expulsion for minor or non-violent behavior,” the evaluation reads. It goes on to give examples of this behavior: “failure to complete assignments, use of obscene or abusive language, [violation of] students' dress code.”
When a school's policy allows students to be removed for failure to complete assignments, the students who remain naturally tend to have better academic records and outcomes.
But the state of affairs across KIPP Philadelphia schools is not so simple today, because most of its schools over the last several years have begun to fill vacant seats.
Enrollment by grade at KIPP Philadelphia Preparatory Academy