The nonprofit charter school's rough start is long in the past. Now it plans to double its student enrollment within five years.

KIPP Columbus was born from the efforts of the Columbus Partnership to bring another education option to a notoriously failing Columbus City Schools. A number of Partnership members visited a KIPP school in Houston and several others throughout the nation. Impressed with the concept, they decided to apply to bring the model to Columbus. At the same time, Hannah Powell was doing some exploration for a nonprofit where she was the director of education programs. She visited some KIPPs and was intrigued. “They weren’t doing everything right,” she says. “But they had this authenticity about them, this real commitment, this posture for progress and this humility to say, ‘We don’t have it all figured out, but every day we’re working to get better.’”

Powell’s career at KIPP Columbus, where she is now executive director, began with being tasked to open a second elementary school, but unforeseen crises halted plans for expansion. Its first year, 2008, KIPP Columbus was financially unsustainable and the culture of the school was not a healthy one. “It had a really, really tough time,” says Abigail Wexner, a member of the KIPP Columbus board and a Columbus Partnership member. “We talked about actually not continuing the school. We had made a solemn promise to families and to kids about higher performance.”

Instead the board, which also includes Cameron Mitchell and federal Judge Algenon Marbley, asked Powell to lead change at KIPP. “She really was responsible for the turnaround,” says Wexner. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of work yet to do, but we’re very encouraged by our results. After a few years we had the confidence to go forward [with the expansion].”

Since then, KIPP has gone from 50 fifth graders to 2,000 students, infants through 12th grade, and the bloated waiting list has 2,500 names. Its annual operating budget has increased from $1 million to nearly $19 million next year, and a staff of five has turned into more than 200. The 2019-20 school year will represent the year the founding 8th grade class heads to college. In all, 95 percent of KIPP alumni have graduated from high school and 85 percent are pursuing college and a career. Close to 60 percent of KIPP students come from Linden, one of Columbus’ most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and like other charter schools, KIPP is public and tuition-free for families.

KIPP’s success is evident on its Ohio Department of Education report cards. It’s ranked 15th for academic growth in the state. Its score for the 2017-18 school year in achievement is a D, but student progress from previous grades and gap closing for vulnerable students scored an A and B, respectively, and the district overall scored a C.

The school has more than 100 partnerships—for example, Nationwide Children’s Hospital runs an on-site clinic, and Battelle supports KIPP investments in STEM education. A multimillion dollar STEM facility was recently launched, and KIPP will offer summer science camps.

Within the next five years, Powell says KIPP enrollment likely will double, hopefully on the 130-acre property it now occupies—a former Columbus State Community College golf course in northeast Columbus near Linden. In its entirety, the KIPP Columbus campus includes KIPP Columbus Elementary, KIPP Columbus Primary, KIPP Columbus Middle, KIPP Columbus High, the Battelle Environmental Center, KIPP Columbus Early Learning Center and KIPP Athletics and Wellness Complex.

“I see this as a social justice issue when kids are denied the right to a great education and have a choiceful life,” says Wexner. “Being part of a place that allows that and ensures that it serves the kids, and hopefully serves our families, in the best way possible, is a great honor and privilege, and it gives me tremendous personal satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment.”

Powell says KIPP’s partnerships and offerings represent only the beginning for the school. “Across our state, our urban schools are pretty chronically under-performing,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of progress as a city on a number of different metrics, but public education has not been one of them.”