OUR OPINION: Helena schools offer charter model

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Mississippi River divides the states of Arkansas and Mississippi – the eastern boundary for Arkansas and the western for Mississippi, but the land and people on both sides of the river are much alike, deeply tied to the river’s historical influence and to the productive land in what’s known as the Delta.
The counties on both sides of the river have high poverty rates, generally low educational attainment levels, and many towns and hamlets whose cores are mere shadows of what used to be before mechanization and technology made farming less labor intensive. People moved. Jobs dried up, and catching up in the 21st century is hard.
In Helena, Ark., just across the river, connected by a bridge linking the two states on U.S. Highway 49, a different kind of school – a 860-student charter school called KIPP Delta Public Schools, is impacting the lives and achievements of its students.
The students reflect their region: 89 percent qualify for free lunches under federal standards, which means poverty and very low household income. The student body is 94 percent black, 3 percent white and 3 percent of other racial/ethnic identities. The school’s economic demographic is intentional.
Unlike many of their demographic peers in both states (in the Delta and beyond), they are measuring up academically on state-mandated tests similar to Mississippi’s, and all of them (yes, all) are preparing for college.
KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program. It is a nationwide enterprise with schools across the map, but Delta Public Schools is one of just two KIPP school regions located in a rural area.
The school is public – tax supported in the main. The money for the students, per student, flows from the state to the KIPP district, which is defined as a 30-mile radius around Helena – or defined another way, within a one-hour bus ride, not unlike some of the public school districts in Northeast Mississippi.
All of the students are there because, when offered, they chose it themselves or were enrolled at their parents’ behest.
What’s being accomplished is exceptional:
• 96 percent of its students graduate from high school in four years.
• 93 percent start college; all graduates have to gain acceptance to a two-year or four-year college. All 2011 graduates were accepted to a four-year college.
• On Arkansas’ benchmark test results, KIPP Delta high school students exceeded or met statewide, all-student benchmarks in every measure, except Algebra 1; the KIPP students scored 100 percent proficient or advanced on the category called “high school algebra.”
• The average American College Test score in 2010 was 22.7, slightly above the national average, and 19.8 in 2011, slightly below the state average. All students take the ACT. The school’s goal is for all students to be at 18 or above by the end of 12th grade.
• KIPP Delta Collegiate High School ranked No. 2 in Arkansas for preparing its students in rankings calculated by the Washington Post High School Challenge Index. Colleges generally consider students scoring 19 or higher to be “college ready,” KIPP’s 2011 annual report states.
Many of its graduates go to universities or colleges in Arkansas, but its alumni also are enrolled at Vanderbilt, the U.S. Naval Academy, Colby College, and other schools across the U.S. map.
Some of the students interviewed by the Daily Journal readily admitted that they had problems with relationships, behavior and academics in other school settings. All the students, from elementary through 12th grade, interviewed said KIPP Delta had transformed their attitudes, behavior, outlook and their academics.
It is also significant that private-sector donations have been notable in the financial strength of the KIPP district. In 2011-12 fundraising revenue totals $2.434 million, with $569,000 from the Walton Family Foundation – Walmart money. The total budget is about $11 million.
Even with state money, funding a strong, successful public charter school is no easy task.
We continue to believe that charter schools like KIPP in Arkansas can make a significant, positive impact in poorly performing and troubled school districts in Mississippi.