For KIPP Charters in Newark and Camden, School Starts Now — But Remotely

Among the first schools in New Jersey to return, their classes will be online for now as others await state decisions
Credit: KIPP NJ
A student at KIPP THRIVE Academy in Newark

In the Central Ward of Newark, KIPP Collegiate Academy will start its school year Monday, one of the first schools in New Jersey to do so.

But last week, there was none of the usual buzz of teachers getting their classrooms ready, no final coat of wax being given to the floors.

Instead, the school’s lobby on Thursday was stacked with Algebra I textbooks and classic novels. Lined up neatly were rows of grocery bags filled with books and school supplies ready to distribute, each with a student’s name attached.

And lined up outside were parents and others ready to collect, each wearing a mask.

Welcome to the start of Back-to-School 2020, with KIPP and its 15 charter schools across Newark and Camden among the first to log into an all-remote model that they expect will run until at least October.

Believing in a virtual formula

Starting its planning months ago, KIPP’s schools decided to go unabashedly remote, not just because their leaders felt that was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic but also because they believed their formula can work.

“We know there is nothing better than five days a week in normal school, without social distancing or any of that,” said Ryan Hill, the network’s founder and executive director. “But that’s not on the table.”

“So what you are looking at are either hybrid plans … or fully remote, where you can really get good at the instruction,” Hill said. “I just believe remote is better educationally. And it is certainly safer.”

The KIPP-NJ plan is one of more than 100 submitted by districts and charters to the state Department of Education for an all-remote start to the school year and as of Friday, they were still working out final details with the state. But the start of school will proceed, with students and teachers logging in Monday for what will be six hours of education-by-Zoom, five days a week.

Hill and his team had considered a mix of options for how the instruction would work. One way was live, or synchronous, instruction, where the teacher is facing the students online and teaching the lesson. Another was asynchronous, where teachers assign students tasks and projects and make themselves available, but not necessarily on a set schedule.

After a rough spring that combined the two, KIPP chose synchronous instruction for the fall.

‘The biggest lesson’

“The biggest lesson we learned was synchronous was far better for students, teachers and families,” Hill said.

“Parents liked it because kids are being actually taught and have a scheduled place they have to be; kids liked it better because it was human connection and not just going to a computer program all day,” he said. “And teachers liked it because they got to connect with their kids and build relationships.”

There will be blocks for math and language arts classes, plus electives, but also 30 minutes set aside every day for just checking in and connecting, called “huddle time.” “This is a time to build relationships between kids and teachers and between kids themselves,” Hill said. “We’ll need that more than ever.”

For a total of nearly 5,000 students in Newark and Camden, the network handed out 4,000-plus Chromebooks last spring, some now in better condition than others.

“Our tech team is very busy right now not only trying to get computers to new kids but also trying to handle requests from teachers and parents,” Hill said last week.

Special-needs students, child care

The buildings will remain open, but largely for logistics like delivering food or technology. There will be limited use for students with special needs as well, and some child care services are also being considered.

“But if there’s too many kids, that becomes a huge operation and we wouldn’t have the teachers,” Hill said.

Among those outside lining up for supplies on Thursday was O’Lan Nickson, whose 10th-grade son Malachi will be starting up again on Monday at KIPP Collegiate. She was forthright about what she felt about this back-to-school season.

“It’s a mess,” she said. “But we are doing what we have to do. We are trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and doing the best that we can.”

“I would have hoped things were settled a little more than they are,” she continued. “But it’s not our fault; it’s a pandemic. This probably is the safest thing we can do, at least for now.”