High expectations: Arkansas charter school raises the bar

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

HELENA, Ark. – In this Arkansas Delta city, across the Mississippi River from Coahoma and Tunica counties, a high-poverty public school is sending most of its graduates to college.
The facilities are modest – several modular buildings host most middle- and high-school classes – but the results have been impressive.
One hundred percent of KIPP Delta Collegiate High School’s Class of 2011 received acceptances to four-year colleges and universities; 93 percent of the school’s two graduating classes are currently enrolled in two- or four-year schools.
The high school is one of four charter schools in the region operated by KIPP Delta. Nearly 90 percent of the 860 students in those four schools are classified as low income because they qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Ninety-four percent of them are black.
The success of KIPP Delta in educating low-income and minority students – two groups that show dramatically lower results on Mississippi’s state tests – has caught the attention of state lawmakers.
Mississippi’s Legislature currently is considering a new law that would greatly expand the ability of charter school organizations – like KIPP – to operate in the state. The Senate has passed a charter school bill that will soon will be considered by the House.
Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and co-author of the charter school bill, specifically cited the KIPP Delta Schools, which Tollison visited, as a model of what he’d like to see the new law bring to Mississippi.
“Our goal is to provide a good education to all kids and families who want that opportunity,” said Luke VanDeWalle, KIPP Delta’s chief academic officer.
Operating as charter schools, KIPP Delta’s public schools receive taxpayer money, are tuition free and are open for all students. When more students register than the school can accommodate, as is often the case, a lottery determines who is able to enroll.
“My first impression was the encouragement I received,” said senior Monique Scaife, in his fourth year in KIPP Delta Schools. “I did not receive that in school before. Here I got the encouragement and support when I needed it.”
Because the intention is to educate students who were not being served by traditional education, KIPP Delta representatives go door-to-door to reach prospective students, VanDeWalle said, noting that it doesn’t only want the students whose parents would drive to the school to register them. Its Helena schools bus students from as far away as about 40 minutes to the south and an hour to the north.
KIPP Delta operates mostly independently but falls under the umbrella of the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools.
KIPP schools emphasize high expectations for all students from the first day of school. Enrolling students must commit to do their best, obey the rules, do homework every day and pursue college.
Last year, KIPP Delta’s schools – three in Helena and one 130 miles to the north in Blytheville, Ark., – exceeded state averages on eight of 18 Arkansas Benchmark standardized tests and equaled that average on four others. This year’s senior class has an averaged ACT score of 20.8.
The school’s charter status gives it flexibility from many of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow. It sets its own school calendar with longer school days – 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. – and school years. Students go on educational field trips one Saturday each month and attend school for an extra four weeks during the summer, including a week-long educational trip.
The schools also have received a waiver from teacher certification requirements, and about 75 percent of their faculty are either current or former Teach For America educators.
VanDeWalle said he believes most of the school’s innovations, however, could be emulated.
“Most of what we do, the traditional public schools can do,” he said.
The biggest difference in the school’s charter, he said, is the governing structure. The school’s board, composed of founding board members and people recommended to join, is able to operate free of the political pressures that may sway traditional school boards.
“A school board has interests that span the gamut,” he said, noting that KIPP Delta’s board doesn’t do things like approve the school’s calendar but instead focuses on school legislation, attracting more people to the schools and fundraising.
Third-grade teacher John Bennetts, however, said he believes that the school’s independent charter status gives it more flexibility to make needed changes. For instance, the way elementary subjects are taught is determined by teacher strengths and student need. In some grades, students are grouped by ability level, in others a really strong math teacher might teach math to all students and in others, subjects are departmentalized.
A teacher hired as a language arts teacher who proves to be really strong in math may be switched there.
“We have the opportunity to look at data and make changes on the fly,” Bennetts said.
One thing that stands out during a visit to the schools is the orderliness of the learning environment.
Teachers and students begin lessons by counting down from 5, and they must be on task when the counting ends. Idle chatter is noticeably absent, and teachers can gently remind students to correct their posture, by saying “Delta yes.”
Expectations are high, say administrators, teachers and students, and students are generally not given warnings before being punished for not meeting those expectations.
VanDeWalle said it is important that all teachers have the same expectations and rules and that they all hold students accountable to those rules.
“I don’t like to get onto kids, I get onto the teachers,” he said. “I ask them why they are not holding kids accountable.”
Monique, the senior, admits that he often made trouble and got into fights at his previous school. That changed, he said, when he found himself in a new environment.
“I stayed in trouble in my previous school due to the fact I didn’t have anyone to keep me out of trouble,” he said. “…Everyone was on the same level and making trouble. At KIPP, everyone will succeed in life and has a college mind-set. I knew everyone had the same mind-set, and I fell in line.”
John Huff, a KIPP sixth-grader, said he, too, used to get in trouble at his old school because he was often bullied and would retaliate.
“I’ve been here for two years now, and I’ve never gotten bullied once or gotten hit,” he said. “The consequences for it are extremely high.”
The learning is also more advanced, students said. Senior Galeesa Murph said that at her old school, she had a much easier time being at the top of her class, but that she is now pushed in a more competitive environment. The learning is much more advanced, she said.
Teachers demand for students to inquire, expand their vocabularies and justify their answers. Many of those teachers have their own impressive backgrounds. A Harvard graduate, for instance, teaches several calculus classes.
Eighth-grader Tykeena Watson was asked if her friends in the traditional public schools treat her differently since she began attending a KIPP school this year.
“Some of my friends look up to me, but I don’t believe any of them look down on me because they understand it is for the betterment of me,” she said. “They don’t look at you differently, they depend on you more.”

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