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Academic Rigor, Achievement Propel KIPP Delta Schools and Students

June 7, 2018
In the Arkansas Delta, public charter network prepares students for lives of opportunity

In January, 2002, Scott Shirey moved to Helena-West Helena, Arkansas eager to help give students the opportunity for a better education and a better future.

A Teach for America alumni originally from Massachusetts, Scott had been sent by the KIPP Public Charter Schools network to open a new school in one of the country’s poorest regions, where children must overcome huge obstacles to escape the cycle of poverty.

“The city was struggling economically and the sad narrative in the rest of the state was that there was no solution for the Delta,” says Scott. “People asked questions like, ‘Can these kids really learn?’ ”

Scott found something different: Families eager to see their children thrive in a challenging learning environment, where college and career success were viewed as realistic goals.

For months, Scott went from neighborhood to neighborhood, knocking on doors and talking to parents, recruiting kids to attend the new, open-enrollment public charter school.

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, which provided a planning grant and a startup grant, KIPP Delta College Preparatory Academy opened in a renovated train station with 65 fifth-grade students in July, 2002.

Scott Shirey welcomes students to the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School, which opened in 2002 in a former train station at Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.

Since then, KIPP Delta and its students have prospered through academic rigor and established a culture of high expectations and achievement.

The network now serves 1,400 students across six Arkansas schools in Helena-West Helena, Blytheville and Forrest City. In 2017, it ranked above the national average in percentage of students who graduated high school, begin college and complete a four-year college degree.

We asked Scott to reflect on KIPP Delta’s progress over the past 16 years and his hopes for its future.

On What Made KIPP Delta Stand Out:

“In the early years, we were so different: in terms of our belief system, our time in school and our expectations. The kids wore uniforms. The school day went from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. We sent homework every night. We did experiential field lessons for kids. We gave teachers cell phones and gave out the phone numbers to students, so they could call with questions. We kept kids after school. We did tutoring. We did Saturday schools.”

On Setting College Expectations:
“One of our core beliefs is grounded in the idea that, ‘All of us will learn.’ It’s this notion that regardless of who walks through those school doors, we are committed to giving them a first-class education. We named our homerooms after colleges and said, ‘We don’t care where you come from, we think you can go to college.’ We want to drive home the notion that college should be an option for everybody.”

On Seeing Results:
“I remember the reactions from members of our founding class, when they started to see the scholarship dollars and the colleges they were getting accepted into. This dream we chased together started to become a reality. That was the path to growth. People want to be part of something excellent. Once people got used to the expectations and started to see results, they started to say, ‘Now, I get where you’re going.’ ”

On Providing Students High-Quality Education Options:
“We believe that kids, no matter where they live, should have a choice of schools or education. If you are wealthy enough in this country, you can have choice. You can move to a different community with a stronger school system, or you can choose a private school. If you don’t have access to those resources, what is your option? For us, it’s always been about choice. We want kids to have a life filled with choices.”

On What Makes Him Most Proud:
“I am proud of the individual successes of our kids. A student named David Bibbs is one of my favorite stories. He had come through special education services. He wanted to be a chef. We pushed the heck out of him. He went to the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson Wales University, in Rhode Island, and got a culinary degree. Our students found opportunities they would not have otherwise had, a chance to succeed, to open their eyes to new possibilities.

“The second thing, which is almost as important, is that the narrative has shifted about the Delta. Our students came from predominantly low socio-economic backgrounds. Most qualified for free or reduced lunch. Particularly in the early years, when we started outperforming state metrics, people wondered how we had achieved so much."

On What’s Next for KIPP Delta:
“Coming out of these teenage years as an organization, it’s really about continuing to pursue excellence, solidifying a sound, unshakable identity. We want to be one KIPP team and family in the Delta and be consistent with results and execution. That is what is going to allow us to thrive over time.”

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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