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KIPP Denver Collegiate High School
Kurt Pusch, principal of KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, has presided over a significant turnaround in student performance. Credit: Photo courtesy of Kurt Pusch

As the nation’s largest charter school chain, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) has built a reputation for its success preparing low-income, minority students for college. But how many of its students persevere to college graduation? Forty-five percent of those who finished a KIPP middle school a decade ago or more have since earned a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive number given that 90 percent of KIPP students are from low-income families and the national college completion rate for that population is 9 percent.

But KIPP officials know it’s still far too low. They aim to increase their college graduation rate to 75 percent, on par with the country’s highest income students. To do that, KIPP has been opening more high schools and must ensure they are adequately preparing students.

KIPP Denver Collegiate High School, which opened in 2009 as the network’s first high school in that city, struggled at first to engage students and produce academic excellence. Kurt Pusch, who ran a Denver KIPP middle school, was brought on as principal in 2012, and he started to turn things around. While the school is not old enough yet to track its college graduation rate, officials do know that of the original freshmen class, 77 percent are now college juniors.

And judging by ACT score improvement, prospects are even brighter for later classes. For the past three years, those scores have ranked in the top 1 to 2 percent in Colorado among schools serving 80 percent or more low-income students.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Pusch about what efforts have been successful and where the school still has work to do:

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Question: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about increasing college readiness?

Answer: [There are] three areas that we have found pivotal in our students’ success. The first is character. We looked to breathe life around some core character strengths [like grit, self-control, optimism and gratitude] that connect to what we see as necessary for our students to persist through college. We center our culture around those character strengths.…

Secondly: academics…. We’ve centered a lot of our academic work around writing. For instance, we’ll have students reading … texts across disciplines, across grade levels. About every four to six weeks, they compose argument-based essays and responses.

The third core component for us is thinking about how we’re supporting our students with the college transition. We’re not thinking about just ninth through 12th [grades], we’re thinking about ninth through 16th. We’ve provided individual counseling for our students starting in 11th grade around the college process. And we’ve increased support for our alumni with additional counselors who stay in touch with them at college, particularly in their first year but certainly beyond.

Related: New study of KIPP says the charter chain pulls in more cash than other schools

Q: How do you see your students succeeding?

A: We’ve seen a consistent upward tick in student ACT scores over four years. We’re projecting that that trend will increase this year. And with this senior class, we’re projecting that over 90 percent of them will matriculate to college. We’re also seeing the profiles of schools that our students are applying to expand. Many of our students are pushing beyond the boundaries of Denver and even outside the state. And we’re really thinking thoughtfully about how they’re matching in that process. But to see our students take those risks themselves, and families engage in those risks in exploring college options, I think the dialogue, the narrative, has changed around what’s possible and what the options are for our students.

To give you a micro-moment: I was in a classroom just a few weeks ago. It was a junior English class. And the students were digging into the novel they were reading. What was palpable for me was hearing the voice and confidence from the students in sharing their views, their arguments, their analysis of the text, and to hear the voice they were bringing to that classroom. That was an incredible shift from where that [group] was three years ago.

Q: What’s the next step for KIPP Denver Collegiate High School?

A: We’re going to continue to dig deeply into … argument-based writing across disciplines. We are now turning to dig more deeply into math and science, how we’re ensuring strong STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] opportunities for our students within our school…. Not to say it’s been neglected, but we’ve put a strong premium around humanities and writing in particular. And I think now it’s time to make sure we’re really thinking about college readiness in areas of STEM…. [We are also trying] to more intentionally develop a sense of confidence, a sense of purpose, in our kids. And that’s an area that we need to, and will continue to, dig into.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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