When Districts & Charters Partner – the Sky is the Limit

Elliott Witney, former KIPP school leader, outlines the benefits of a collaboration uniting two charter school networks (KIPP and YES Prep), and the Spring Branch Independent School District (SBISD) in Houston, TX where he currently works.

By Elliott Witney, Executive Director of Strategic Leadership & Innovation for Spring Branch Independent School District; former school leader of KIPP Academy Middle School in Houston, TX.
Singers from KIPP Courage and Landrum Middle School reinvigorate school staff during a professional development day at KIPP Houston.

Ever since the first charter schools opened twenty years ago, districts and charter schools have often been at odds. But that narrative is increasingly being turned on its head. Districts and charter schools across the country are coming together in partnership, sharing best practices and resources while helping each other problem-solve with the goal of improving outcomes for every child they serve.

I am fortunate to be involved in one such partnership. The SKY partnership is a collaboration uniting two charter school networks (KIPP and YES Prep), and the Spring Branch Independent School District (SBISD) in Houston, TX. As a current SBISD staff member and a former KIPP school leader, I’ve experienced both the district and charter sides of this partnership; I see enormous potential for shared learning and growth.


Goal: To Double the Number of Students Completing Higher Ed

The SKY partnership launched in the 2012-13 school year, supported by funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One of SBISD’s first acts was to shift toward what we saw their charter partners doing: focusing on long-term, not short-term, outcomes for students. Instead of concentrating primarily on improving state test results, we’ve set a goal of doubling the number of Spring Branch students who complete some form of higher education – a technical certification, military training, 2-year or 4-year degree. That goal has shifted our district’s priorities. For example, we’re now considering whether or not to offer ACT/SAT prep for all students.


Much More than Sharing Space

Through this partnership, KIPP and YES Prep have established two high-performing charter schools that operate within Spring Branch ISD and share space and resources with SBISD partner schools. KIPP Courage College Prep, which current serves grades 5-7 and will add 8th grade in 2016, is housed at Landrum Middle School; YES Prep Northbrook is located at Northbrook Middle School and currently serves students in grades 6-8.

The fact that the charter and traditional schools are co-located within the same building is extremely important. Not only does it make collaboration between the schools easier and more practical, but it also allows both schools to create and share a campus-wide culture of success.

There are other benefits too. Because charter schools save money when they share district buildings, they are able to invest in other areas. All students at KIPP and YES also have access to SBISD’s broad range of electives and extra-curricular activities, such as athletic programs, art classes, and band.

Both school systems also benefit from economies of scale. When schools partner to serve a greater number of students, they receive better prices for classroom technology such as smart boards. Neither KIPP nor YES Prep is large enough to achieve these economies of scale on their own, so the SKY partnership means they can benefit from SBISD’s purchasing power.


Sharing Development Opportunities

One of the goals of the SKY Partnership is to share best practices and lessons learned on a wider scale. KIPP Courage, Landrum, YES Prep, and Northbrook have shared professional development since the beginning and have gotten progressively more collaborative. In the fall, we held SKY Summit – a well-received conference that gave teachers from all schools involved in the partnership the opportunity to share professional development opportunities and ideas. There are numerous structures in place to facilitate collaboration at every level, which can benefit all teachers.

Individual schools are also investing in shared professional development. At KIPP Courage and Landrum, for example, the fine arts and PE teachers are SBISD employees, but they have both Landrum and KIPP students in their classes. “If we wanted the collaboration to go to the next level, we needed to start there,” says KIPP Courage school leader Eric Schmidt. SBISD and KIPP arranged for these teachers to participate in KIPP’s professional development programs, both in Houston and at the national KIPP School Summit. Once a culture of collaboration was established in extracurriculars, the schools focused on extending it into the core academic subjects as well.


Sharing Expertise

Sharing and collaboration goes beyond the classroom, too. For example, in order to help us reach our new district-wide goal, we needed to rethink how to offer higher education counseling in our high schools. To help shape our thinking, we partnered with KIPP and YES Prep to learn from their approaches. Among other things, we hired more academic advisors to shrink the ratio of students to adults and to bolster our higher education counseling.

As school leader Eric Schmidt describes it, KIPP Courage and Landrum have learned a lot from one another. For example, KIPP Courage hands out colorful “ganas cards” to recognize and celebrate students who demonstrate KIPP’s key character strengths. Many of Landrum’s teachers got excited about this system, so Landrum adopted it and tailored it to the school’s needs. The two “ganas” systems look very different, but they started from a common source. Meanwhile, KIPP Courage has benefited from Landrum’s robust special education and ESL programs; by drawing on the expertise and experience of Landrum’s faculty, KIPP Courage is able to improve how they serve students with special needs or limited English proficiency.


Ripple Effect

Our partnership is not only providing benefits to students enrolled at Landrum and Northbrook, but it is serving as a catalyst for the formation of similar partnerships statewide. Grand Prairie ISD, outside Dallas, is partnering with Uplift Education and KIPP Dallas-Fort Worth. Officials from the district in Spokane, Washington have visited SKY schools and adopted pieces of our strategy. Thanks to support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, similar partnerships are taking place in Tulsa, Oklahoma; San Jose, California; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and a second YES Prep partnership in Houston – this one in Aldine ISD.

We know that the future of our society and its prosperity depend on how well we educate our children. An increasing number of people are coming to understand that we need more quality schools-whether charter or district schools. Partnerships like this really can be the best of both worlds. They allow education systems to harness the strengths of each other to help an entire community’s students reach for the sky.


Learn more about the SKY Partnership >