KIPP, the high-performing charter school with two sites in… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Mary Jefferson became the legal guardian of her granddaughter when the child was 2 years old to save her from a life of instability after her parents became addicted to drugs and ended up in jail.
A decade later, Sonya Moss is excelling as a student at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a public charter that is one of the highest-performing middle schools in Baltimore and the state. Jefferson credits the school's structure and support for helping the seventh-grader overcome her childhood obstacles and described KIPP "as a gift from God."
But the rare educational opportunities Sonya and other low-income students receive at the Northwest Baltimore school could come to an end this summer. The school says it will close June 30 if it cannot reach a long-term deal with the Baltimore Teachers Union over pay or garner enough support for legislation in Annapolis that would allow teachers to set their own working conditions.
KIPP's model requires a longer-than-typical 9 1/2-hour school day, which has caused tensions with the union, in order to achieve its results: some of the highest test scores in the state and a 100 percent college-acceptance rate.
"I feel like they came along to help me with my girl, and now she's not lost anymore," Jefferson said. "She just can't go backward. And if this happens, she will just be lost."
KIPP is part of a nationwide network of highly successful charter schools whose mission is to provide a stringent and structured urban education. KIPP, which opened the first of its two schools in Baltimore in 2002, says it has been hampered by sharing a building with various schools and recently operating on a one-year agreement with the union about how to pay its teachers.
Unlike many of its counterparts around the nation, Baltimore's KIPP schools are bound by the teachers union contract regarding pay, which has earned the state criticism for having a restrictive charter school law. Therefore, KIPP has had to compensate teachers for the extended days — a demand that the school says is costing an additional $400,000 to $500,000 a year.
KIPP is also negotiating with the school system in hopes of getting a long-term lease for the building Ujima now occupies. It is willing to take on debt to fix up the building, which is in poor condition, but only if it can get a long-term agreement.
Without a commitment from the school district, each year will remain as uncertain as the last, said Jason Botel, executive director of KIPP Baltimore.
"To be in this position every year, and to have to say to parents and students that we might not be here is hard," Botel said. "We cannot finance and fundraise if we have a one-year lease on life — if every year, we're at the risk of shutting down."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the union is willing to negotiate with KIPP, as it does with several charter schools in Baltimore that want to implement individual models that may conflict with the union's contract.
"What we have is the most innovative contract in the country — and we're expecting student achievement to rise in all of our schools, and I would hope KIPP is going to be a part of that," English said. "But, at the same token — I think it's unfair to expect teachers to work a 91/2-hour day and not pay them for that time."
The school put the district on notice last winter that it would leave Baltimore if a long-term agreement could not be reached. KIPP had threatened to pull out of the district last year when the school and the union were at odds over the union's contract. The two parties then agreed that KIPP teachers would receive 20.5 percent more in pay — making them among the highest-paid teachers in the district. That agreement ends June 30.
The school needs a more cost-effective solution, Botel said. "We stretch the money as far as we can, but we still get the same amount of funding from the city and state as everyone else," he said.
So, this year KIPP is seeking relief in Annapolis, where a bill hearing is scheduled for March 9 that would allow charter school faculty to vote on their working conditions, including their pay for the extended hours.
English pointed out that the proposed legislation would allow 80 percent of teachers in the school to vote on their working conditions, the same stipulation outlined in the recently ratified teachers union contract. However, voting on pay is excluded.
"This legislation just attempts to circumvent our contract," English said. "I would hope that they wouldn't go to the legislature to negotiate for them."
KIPP teachers are hopeful that their operator and union leaders — who are working on their behalf — will ultimately come to a conclusion that is in the best interest of the students.