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In Charter-Rich Central Brooklyn, New KIPP Elementary Strives to Stand Out

By Sonja Sharp | September 9, 2013 10:30am
  KIPP AMP Middle School was one of only a handful of charters in Brooklyn when it opened in 2005. Now, its sister school is one of three new charter elementaries opening this fall in District 17 alone, making Crown Heights one of the most charter-dense neighborhoods in the city. 
KIPP AMP Elementary Opens in Crown Heights
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CROWN HEIGHTS — Charter schools are a dime a dozen in Central Brooklyn's District 17, which in the past several years has added more of them than almost any other district in the city. 

While competition from other charters and new, inventive district schools is stiffer here than almost anywhere else in New York, perhaps nowhere is the pressure to shine so extreme as at KIPP AMP. 

Standing out from the crowd never used to be a problem for the Texas-based chain, at least not in Crown Heights, where its flagship Brooklyn school opened in 2005. Back then, KIPP AMP Middle School was one of only a handful of charters in the borough. Now, its new elementary is one of three new K-5 charters opening this fall in District 17 alone.

To understand what so many charters are doing here, and what they're trying to do across the city, KIPP AMP is a good place to start.

For the 100 kindergartners at KIPP AMP's three-week-old Crown Heights elementary school, each eight hour day begins with three things: military order, monkish silence, and roughly one million hugs. 

"One of our values is enthusiasm — how do you make school really fun? " said Principal Emily Carroll, 31, referring to the mix of strict discipline and childlike enthusiasm that characterizes the national network's newest New York school. "There are a lot of charters in District 17, but those character choices are what make or break your experience."

With its long history in the area and its all-caps brand name, KIPP AMP Elementary is easily the most recognizable new charter in a community that has not always been happy with them. The school, which shares a single building with three others, became a lightning rod for charter-related frustration even before it opened. 

“You pit parents against parents in the same community,” Claudette Agard of Community Education Council 17 told DOE representatives at a spring 2012 meeting, after the department announced that KIPP AMP was seeking to expand. “Students, staff and parents really feel disenfranchised.” 

In addition to distinguishing itself in a crowded field of charters, KIPP AMP's new school faces other challenges that start even in kindergarten. Introducing 100 5-year-olds into a building that already houses three middle schools presents its own logistical hurdles, and finding time to hammer them out with district school administrators around KIPP's 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. instruction schedule has proven even harder.

But if KIPP's kindergartners can climb four flights of stairs in total silence, Carroll and her team believe that they can stand out. 

"I think the longer day is necessary to get them all the experience we want," Carroll said. "If you're going to commit to true character, you need space to struggle."