New Schools of Hope organizations want to become ‘good neighbors’

Florida’s two newest “Schools of Hope” operators don’t just plan to open schools in academically struggling areas. They also want to work with districts — and the communities they serve — long before they open they get started.

The state Board of Education approved KIPP New Jersey and Democracy Prep Public Schools as Hope Operators today. The status allows them to qualify for special financing and state grants that help them expand student services and offer more instructional time.

The money will come out of a $140-million-a-year appropriation from the Legislature. As a result, Gabriella DiFillipo of KIPP New Jersey, which is helping to midwife a new school in Miami, said it “will only mean more funding for schools in low-income communities.”

DiFillipo said there’s no “secret sauce” behind the KIPP approach. There’s a lot of hard work and high expectations.“We also believe in being good neighbors and partnering with the local communities where we grow,” she said.

In Miami, KIPP working with the local Urban League and partnering with the school district to share space in one of its existing buildings. This co-location approach can help the district make efficient use of its existing facilities. Some recent research suggests it can help boost achievement in district schools.

Similarly, Steve Cunning of Democracy Prep said his organization started looking at Florida after he met Tom Majdanics, who recently finished a stint as executive director of KIPP Jacksonville. His organization hopes to complement KIPP in Duval County, and may also explore high-needs areas in places like Polk or Hillsborough Counties, he said. But those decisions are in the early stages and community buy-in matters.

“Our intent is to be deliberate, and to work with communities and with districts,” Cunning said.

He also told the board his organization was one of the few nationally renowned charter school organizations willing to take over existing schools and turn them around, rather than start entirely new schools.

The law creating the Schools of Hope program passed last year amid pushback from school districts and concerns about whether it would actually prompt high-quality charter school organizations to expand into Florida.

Gary Chartrand is a state board member and Jacksonville businessman who helped bring KIPP to his city. He has long advocated recruiting more national charter nonprofits into Florida’s high-poverty communities. He said he was “extremely pleased” with the progress so far. There are now four approved Hope Operators, and Chartrand said he hopes more organizations of a similar caliber will consider coming to the state.

“If there are more high-impact charter school organizations that want to come to Jacksonville, I would say more is better,” he said. “We can’t get enough of them to come to Florida.”

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