KIPP Raíces Academy

A low-income school in Los Angeles where students with disabilities excel

The staff at KIPP Raíces Academy (“raíces” is Spanish for “roots”) are more than coworkers, said the school’s principal, Yesenia Castro. They’re a familia, working together day in and day out to ensure that all students — including those with disabilities — learn at high levels. “We are invested in each other’s success, because that means success for all of our kids,” she said.

That attitude — and the resulting systems and supports its staff has put in place — have helped make KIPP Raíces one of the few California public schools that serves both a low-income community, and has almost closed the achievement gap for its students with disabilities. More than 90% of KIPP Raíces’ 565 students come from low-income and Latino families, and the vast majority outperform their peers in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). But most notably, the 10% of KIPP Raíces students with special learning needs do so as well: 36% score proficient in ELA and 50% in math, compared with less than 8% in LAUSD. This means that students with disabilities at KIPP Raíces are more than four times as likely to be proficient in ELA and eight times as likely to be proficient in math than the students with disabilities elsewhere in the district.

“It’s a really loving place, but it is also coupled with high expectations and a focus on results,” founder Amber Young Medina told the L.A. School Report when KIPP Raíces became the first KIPP school to earn a National Blue Ribbon in 2015. KIPP Raíces educators know that every single child is capable of incredible things, and they work hard together to make that a reality.

KIPP Raíces is part of the KIPP LA network of 15 charter schools. Yesenia Castro (principal at Raices), Kim Dammann (KIPP LA Managing Director of Special Education), and Medalla Dimapindan (lead resource specialist at Raices) share their thoughts about how the school does it.

A strong culture of collaboration

Like so many school leaders who achieve great results for students with disabilities, Castro approaches her staff and students with a spirit of inclusion and collaboration. “Our special education students are not seen as a separate category or group; they’re all our kids, there’s a shared ownership,” said Castro. Each classroom works closely with others in its grade level, and even across grade levels TK-4.

Even more than other children, students with disabilities need stability and consistency. They thrive when they develop ongoing, authentic relationships with caring adults who know and understand them, and who have the knowledge to try different interventions in search of the right solutions — as well as the patience to keep trying when those interventions don’t work.

Many on the KIPP Raíces and local KIPP LA special education teams have worked in special education for a long time, and most have worked together at KIPP for years. The school has seven full-time and one part-time staff member supporting special education, and the KIPP LA central office has several program managers, as well as a director of special education, Kim Dammann, who has worked in many special education environments and schools for more than 20 years. Since the school was founded in 2008, the special education team has expanded, either by bringing in specialists from other schools, or by promoting teachers or specialists to new levels. The principal has also been around since 2009 — she was a founding first grade teacher — and each year more than 90% of teachers return to the school.

To keep those relationships strong, KIPP LA strives to provide as many services as possible in-house, rather than contracting services out to an external provider. “This way we can actually control the quality of our services,” said Dammann. “It takes someone who works within the team on an ongoing basis to really meet kids’ needs. It’s getting to know the teachers and students and understanding the culture, and going above and beyond to help them with whatever they need.”

With so many years working together, the special education team is able to communicate openly and frequently about what’s working and what’s not working, extending that open communication to parents, general education teachers, and regional staff.

“There’s just constant communication about what’s being done with the students and seeing where they’re at,” said Castro. Teachers also meet every week for three hours with their grade level and receive tailored professional development on relevant topics, often including behavior management and special education interventions, from special education staff. To help teachers stay focused on instruction, Dimapindan handles all IEP paperwork and meets with every general education teacher every six weeks, rotating through grade levels each week.

Effective instruction is differentiated, not diluted

When schools “water down” content and instruction to ensure that students with disabilities can master them, this does students a significant disservice. When these students don’t receive challenging material in one grade, it sets them up to be unprepared for challenging material in the following grade, and eventually in college, career, or life.

Like other schools that achieve great results for students with special needs, KIPP Raíces provides every student with a rigorous curriculum — but gives students many chances to learn material, with a range of instructional approaches. “Students whose needs have not been met through traditional teaching methods benefit from supplemental, direct instruction, small group work, workshop, call and response, hands-on learning, chanting, role-playing, team-teaching, individualized instruction, cooperative learning, peer tutoring, computer activities, and other innovative techniques,” said the school’s 2013 charter renewal petition.

This year, the administration has reserved an additional hour of common planning time in the weekly schedule. During this time, grade-level teams meet to plan instruction, look at data, and discuss student progress. Assistant principals also provide classroom coverage throughout the week to allow teachers to leave their classroom and observe other teachers’ techniques. “Differentiation” based on student needs comes so naturally to the school’s teachers that it’s easy for them to extend it to students with disabilities. “When we look at all our kids — English Language Learners, special education, general education — it’s more of ‘what systems will work for that child in particular?’ and that’s what we do,” one of the school’s general education teachers told the California Charter School Association for its 2016 report on effective approaches to special education. “Every teacher adjusts their teaching style to meet the need of the children in the classroom.”

Staying on top of student challenges

At the most effective schools for students with disabilities, educators use the school-wide systems and tools to communicate with each other about student needs. They use the same data-tracking tools and assessments to document the patterns and trends of each student, not just those with disabilities. The most successful schools use multiple data points to track progress all year long and adjust instruction. At KIPP Raíces, regardless of whether a student has an IEP, the school has a structure called “Student Support Team” (SST) designed to ensure students get the help they need. Grade-level managers review data regularly and flag those students who seem to be struggling either academically or behaviorally, so that an SST — made up of administrators, teachers, and parents, and the special education lead (if the student has an IEP) can be created. That team meets to determine the best next steps, then monitors progress together in an SST meeting every few weeks until things improve.

Unlike at some other schools, SST meetings at KIPP Raíces aren’t rooted in teachers’ mere observations or guesses, nor do they only consider annual test scores. SST meetings are anchored in real (and real-time) data about what students are learning and not learning. Before an SST meeting happens, teachers complete a form with the students’ areas of strength and challenge, as well as the interventions they’ve tried. The form also includes data such as results of the Measures of Academic Progress assessment of students’ growth in learning, data from “running records” that teachers use to measure reading levels, writing samples, “exit tickets” that gauge student understanding of a lesson or unit, and any other information that helps illustrate the challenge and lack of progress.

These same types of data are then gathered by teachers every three to six weeks for follow-up SST meetings. If the student isn’t improving after three or more SST meetings, students may be referred for a special education evaluation.

“We’re constantly looking at data,” said Castro. Parents are rarely surprised by student needs, because they are steeped in their own student’s data all year long. The school provides parents with information about types of student data at “back to school night” in the beginning of the year, and then regularly sends home information about how each student is doing relative to grade-level standards.

To involve teachers more deeply and get ahead of problems, last year the principal began to send out a monthly survey to teachers, asking which few students needed help and what interventions they had already tried. Teachers also review the past year’s SSTs at the beginning of the new school year, so they can build upon what’s worked and avoid interventions that haven’t. The SST embodies the school’s proactive approach to ensuring students are on track. In a typical year, the school conducts close to 200 SSTs (some for the same student) across a student body of about 550 students.

Tiered interventions help schools adjust support over time

Although many students nationally are identified as having a learning disability and kept trapped in that diagnosis for years, research shows that this is a mistake. Like all students, individuals with disabilities grow and change over time, with their needs for services shifting or sometimes going away entirely. As such, many schools and districts have adopted a “tiered instruction” approach, which provides three different levels — or “tiers” — of instructional strategies, depending on a student’s individual needs. As students struggle or progress, they receive more or less intense interventions as a result.

The goal is to provide such effective support early on that students can eventually support themselves. “The goal is really to have these kids become independent,” said Dimapindan. At KIPP Raíces, students learn strategies for how to manage in spite of their disabilities. Over time, they can then choose to “exit” special education services if these students feel they no longer need it.