KIPP Los Angeles College Preparatory School in Boyle Heights has been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. The designation was given Wednesday to 279 public schools across the country and is considered the highest honor the federal government can bestow on a school.
KIPP LA Prep is an independent public charter middle school that serves a primarily Latino student body and was one of only two schools from LA Unified to receive the honor, along with Wonderland Elementary, a traditional district school. Last year KIPP Raíces, an elementary school, was the only LA Unified school, charter or traditional, to receive the honor and was the first school from the KIPP LA Schools organization to receive the Blue Ribbon.
Ninety-four percent of KIPP LA Prep’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, but the Blue Ribbon award names it an “exemplary high-performing school,” meaning it is recognized as a top school in the nation, not just a top school for low-income students.
“That’s the thing that we constantly tell our students, which is that we are not just competing against the neighborhood schools, we are competing with the rest of the world, with the rest of the population, and that has always been our focus,” School Leader Carlos Lanuza said Thursday.
KIPP LA Prep is one of 33 schools in California to receive a National Blue Ribbon Award and one of 29 public schools in California.
“We got nominated last year and then we did all the work that we needed to do on the application and the calls and the scores, and then this year we got the call that, ‘Hey, you got the Blue Ribbon award,'” Lanuza said. “I want to say it was vindication for our community. This is such a good feeling for Boyle Heights, that they deserve a quality school. And I think that our community knows that we are a quality school, but this award puts the stamp on it.”
The school began in 2003 in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood and moved locations several times before signing a 25-year lease eight years ago at its current location, which used to be a tortilla factory. Lanuza, who also started working at the school eight years ago and has been school leader for five, said a permanent facility allowed the school to expand its approach.
“We created this beautiful school and then our whole focus changed from just academics, where it was academics, academics, academics, to really a whole-child approach and making sure students are not just getting the high academic opportunities, but music, art, dance, electives and enrichment programs,” he said.
Steven Almazan is a graduate student at UC Berkeley and taught special education for several years at KIPP Sol Academy in East LA. Almazan grew up near KIPP LA Prep’s current location and reminisced in a recent blog post about smelling the tortillas from the factory as he walked past it on the way to his school. He didn’t realize the factory had become a school until he saw KIPP LA Prep featured in the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman” when he was in college. Seeing the work that was being done at KIPP, he said, “propelled him to want to work for KIPP.”
“It is really hard to find schools that can provide an excellent education in Boyle Heights. Typically we hear if you want a good education you should go outside of the neighborhood,” Almazan told LA School Report. “The fact that one of the best schools in the nation now is in Boyle Heights is just a huge testament to the work that has been done at KIPP.”
Almazan added, “KIPP LA Prep, I feel out of all the KIPP schools in LA, they have a lot of teachers who have been there since the beginning and a lot of teachers who essentially mastered their content.”
Lanuza said even when the school started adding more electives, the school’s API scores continued to rise, and the school has scored extremely well on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) tests, which began last year. On the 2016 tests, 72 percent of KIPP LA Prep’s students met or exceeded the standard of the English language arts test, and 74 percent met or exceeded the math standard. On the same test, 39 percent of LA Unified’s students at traditional schools met or exceeded the English standard and 28 percent met or exceeded the math standard.
Catching students up their first year and then keeping the bar at a high level is an important cornerstone of why his students are achieving so much, Lanuza said.
“We usually get students who are reading two or three grade levels behind, so we are making sure that we are doing the interventions, doing the tutoring and doing the re-teaching to get kids up to grade level,” Lanuza said. “And then once they get up to 6th grade to actually access the material, just exploding from there. We make sure we have a high level of mathematics. We actually teach geometry and Algebra II, which is not common for middle schools.”
Lanuza also said that while his students seem pleased that the school has received the award, they may not be grasping how big a deal it is.
“They are happy and they are proud and there is part of me that thinks they don’t know the magnitude of this,” he said. “We tell them every day that they are proving what’s possible, that Latino children in Boyle Heights can achieve. And they take our word for it, but I don’t think they have gotten down to the magnitude of what this award really means.”