KIPP Ascend Charter School in Austin will expand from a middle school to a full elementary school by 2015.

The Chicago Board of Education approved the grade expansion last month, allowing the school to add kindergarten through fourth grades. KIPP will open its first kindergarten class in 2010 adding a grade each year. The middle school currently has 320 students in grades fifth through eighth, but expects enrollment will increase to 900 when the school reaches full capacity.

Interest in the school’s mission by parents sparked the grade expansion, explained Jim O’Connor, founding school leader of KIPP Ascend, located at 715 S. Kildare Ave. The charter school focuses on preparing students for college before they get into high schools. KIPP, O’Connor noted, has been receiving calls almost daily from parents wanting to enroll their children in kindergarten, first or second grade, but the Austin charter school does not offer those levels.

KIPP Ascend’s school board, comprised of local business professionals, saw that interest as an opportunity to expand, said O’Connor, deciding last year on the grade expansion. KIPP Ascend is one of more than 60 charter schools nationwide, part of the Knowledge Is Power Program of charter schools. The grade expansion is only affecting the Austin campus.

O’Connor contends the Austin school’s expansion is about fulfilling the educational needs of a community that has several under-performing schools. “I think that parents and kids are very interested in high-quality schools, and we want to serve them,” he said.

To fill that need, KIPP Ascend is looking for a new building for the grade expansion. They hope to occupy the building by summer 2009. The school currently shares a facility with Sumner Academy. KIPP Ascend plans to open seven kindergarten classes and will be hiring for those positions by winter 2010. Additionally, the school plans to hire a principal for its k-through-fourth grade program.

O’Connor hopes to replicate the school’s academic success within its new grade program. Many students who come to KIPP Ascend are behind grade level in math and reading, but the six-year-old school has managed to graduate them above grade level, O’Connor noted, adding that their eighth-grade math and reading scores exceed city and state standards. In addition, 55 percent of its graduates were accepted into selective-enrollment high schools.

That college-trek begins by creating an environment of high expectations for both behavior and academic work, O’Connor explained, with the curriculum’s strong focus on building academic skills.

Students also have a longer school day, nearly nine hours with two hours of homework daily. The school rounds out its course work with enrichment activities like yoga, drama and dance to give students a range of experiences.

But reaching kids at an earlier age and giving them a strong foundation in math, reading, critical thinking and social skills can close the achievement gap faced by many inner-city students, O’Connor insists. “If they start in kindergarten we can … increase student achievement,” he said. “We know we can get more students into selective enrollment schools and get more students to, and through, college, which is our bottom line.”

To learn more

Visit KIPP Ascend Charter School, or call 773- 533-1770