Creating Online Kindergarten with KIPP Empower, Part 1

Often times, when we do interviews via e-mail, we get worried. The reason is because people are less likely to give long answers when they have to type it all out instead of giving the answers verbally. With that said, when I first started reviewing this interview, it didn't take long to realize just how passionate Mike Kerr -- the principal of KIPP Empower in Los Angeles-- is about the work he is doing.


KIPP is a network of charter schools that started in 1994 with the goal of improving the results of students at public schools, particularly ones in low-income areas of the country. The program has recently been lauded for its blended learning model, which has used technology and a unique education model to have their schools rank amongst the highest-achieving public schools in the country.

KIPP Empower has thus far focused its efforts on kindergartners and first graders, an age group that would seemingly have a tough time grasping the technological aspect of the learning. However these students have been successful, so we got curious, and luckily Kerr was pretty much the perfect interview subject. His answers were so detailed and in-depth that we were forced to split this interview into two parts. Here is Part 1, tune in tomorrow to read Part 2.

Let’s start with you personally, I saw you were a Teach for America graduate, so how did you end up in Los Angeles, helping build and develop a blended learning approach for kindergartners?

I applied for Teach for America in my senior year at the University of Maryland, and was placed at Public School 192 in Harlem where I taught kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. My students and I created a positive, achievement-oriented, and nurturing classroom environment, which paid off with amazing student achievement results.  I felt that there was no reason why this same culture of achievement couldn’t exist in every classroom in our school.  Thus, I decided to become a principal to scale up the achievement results that we had achieved.  I then applied to the School Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

After graduating from Harvard, I founded a charter elementary school, Achievement First Crown Heights Elementary School (AFCHES) in New York City, with the goal of laying such a solid foundation that all of our students would feel empowered to attend college.  At AFCHES, our students outperformed their peers in the district, city, and state. After serving for five years as the founding principal of AFCHES, I decided to move from New York to Los Angeles, and joined KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) with the goal of creating another high-performing charter school.

In October 2009, as I was preparing to found KIPP Empower Academy through the KIPP Foundation’s Fisher Fellowship program, I learned that California’s Class-Size Reduction funding had been discontinued for new and expanding charter schools. My primary goal in adopting a blended learning model was to preserve an individualized, small-group classroom experience for KIPP Empower in the face of budget cuts.

By being strategic with how we use staffing and technology, we have been able to ensure that our students are taught in groups with a 14:1 student-to-teacher ratio or better in reading, writing, math, and science. For our students, 90 percent of whom are African-American and 93 percent of whom are low-income, this personalized instruction is helping them get on track to succeed in middle school, high school, college and the world beyond.

With so many blended learning programs popping up across the state and the country, why did you choose to try the model on kindergartners rather than work with an established blended learning program that focused on high-school students or elementary school students?

New KIPP schools start from the ground up and grow one grade level at a time, so KIPP Empower Academy’s founding student body was comprised solely of kindergarteners. We will be a fully-enrolled K-4 elementary school in 2015. I started with kindergarten because I believe it is important to get children on the path to and through college from the very beginning.

I imagine building an online curriculum for kindergartners is harder than building one for grade-schoolers, what was that process like? What were some of the specific challenges you needed to overcome to make sure the material was both fun and educational?

It has been surprisingly difficult to find a single source of age-appropriate, interactive, and relatively inexpensive content capable of keeping elementary-age students engaged for an entire school year. We have put together a combination of programs from different companies in order to meet students’ diverse learning needs in reading, writing, math and science.

Ultimately our leadership team evaluated more than 20 potential content providers, some of the criteria we evaluated them on included:

-          Engaging to students

-          Provides clear feedback on growth to students

-          Age appropriateness and usability

-          Level of data and standards-based reporting

-          Engaging multiple learning styles

-          Ability to offer a single sign-on for students to access content

-          Cost (least important)

-          Browser based program

The early results have been incredibly positive and students seem to be picking up the material easily. I am curious what you think the reasoning behind their success is. Why do you think the model you have introduced makes learning easier for these students?

The ultimate goal of KIPP Empower’s blended learning model is to give students a personalized learning experience despite increasing class sizes. By teaching in small groups, teachers are able to give students the individualized attention they need; we also use adaptive computer programs that advance students who have mastered the material and cycle back to reteach students who are struggling, which means each student is able to learn at the pace that works best for them.

Some criticism has been that kindergartners need engaging and hands-on learning more than computer programs? What would you say to that criticism?

It’s not a zero-sum game. Learning can be engaging and hands on AND involve computers. The computers at KIPP Empower are a tool for learning, which our amazing teachers can rely on to help students get the personalized, effective education they need. We believe that to truly prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st Century, our students need to engage with both online content and hands-on instruction.  

Computer activities are only a small part of our students’ school day. Beyond the hour they spend on the computers per day, our students have 90 minutes per week in foreign language instruction, physical education, and art. They also have hands-on, project-based science instruction each day and work in literacy and math centers at their own pace.  Additionally, students have two recess periods each day. We believe our longer school day helps us truly meet the needs of the whole child as well as the challenges of the 21st Century. 

You split up the classroom between teaching in a traditional setting and computer work. How do the two co-exist? Is the computer learning used to supplement lessons being taught? Or are the students learning different things on the computer from what they learn with the teacher?

We do not use a “traditional setting” in our school.  In the traditional classroom, a teacher is teaching one lesson to the whole class at a time and then attempts to adapt the lesson for higher performing students and for struggling learners.  We believe this traditional teach-to-the-middle approach is outdated.  We employ a small-group teaching approach in reading, writing, math and science.  While each of our classrooms serves 28 students and is equipped with 15 computers, students are working with teachers in groups that range in size from six to 14. 

While on the computers, students use adaptive computer programs that respond to how they are performing.  These programs will accelerate students ahead if they are zooming along and can circle back to re-teach and review content if a student is struggling. 

To take kindergarten reading as an example, we divide the 28 students into three reading groups.  Within this three-group reading model, at any given time, one group is with a teacher for a 30-minute phonics/fluency lesson, one group is with another teacher for a 30-minute comprehension/vocabulary block, and the last group is using the adaptive technology of the computer program. Then, the students rotate from one block to the next until everyone has completed all three blocks.

Instead of the traditional model where one lesson is taught towards the middle group, each group can receive a lesson tailored to its unique learning needs. Because we constantly assess our scholars—informal assessments are administered bi-weekly and the STEP literacy interim assessments are administered five times a year—students may switch groups as often as their learning needs fluctuate.

Because we use products from multiple different software companies, we haven’t been able to fully integrate the online learning and in-person teaching into a single seamless experience. This is something we’re working on, by partnering with companies like Junyo to create a system that fits our needs.