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Graduation day in Helena

Tonight at 7:00 on the campus of Phillips Community College in Helena-West Helena, the first class of seniors will graduate from what’s commonly known as the KIPP school.

If you closely examine how far these kids have come, you’ll realize just how remarkable this story is.

Gov. Mike Beebe will deliver the commencement address at what’s officially known as the KIPP Delta Collegiate High School. Mike Feinberg, one of the national founders of KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program), will be there.

If there has been a more hopeful day than this one in the Arkansas Delta in recent years, I’m not sure what it is.

In 1994, Feinberg and a fellow teacher named Dave Levin began the first KIPP school in Houston after completing their Teach for America commitment. Since then, the KIPP network has grown to 82 schools (all public charter schools — these are not private schools) serving more than 20,000 students. The vast majority of the students come from low-income families.

Think about this statistic: Nationally, only about 20 percent of students from low-income families attend college. Of the KIPP alumni nationally, 86 percent have gone on to college.

The list of college acceptances for the class graduating tonight ranges from the U.S. Naval Academy to Vanderbilt to Notre Dame.

Scott Shirey showed up in east Arkansas eight years ago with a dream. With the strong support of a core group of civic and business leaders in Helena (as always, I’m going to dispense with that clunky hyphenated name in the hopes that Helena-West Helena will soon just become Helena), Shirey was convinced he could succeed where others had not in one of the nation’s poorest counties.

The KIPP school accepts all students on a space-available basis. Ninety-five percent of the students in Helena are black, and 85 percent of them qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program.

Major national supporters of the KIPP effort have included the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and the Fisher family, which helped begin Gap Inc.

“Thanks to the support of the Fishers and the Waltons, our students are climbing the mountain to college,” Shirey says.

Since the partnership with the Fisher family begain in 2000, the KIPP network has grown from two schools to 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. John Fisher serves as the chairman of the KIPP national board and the Charter School Growth Fund.

A new member of the KIPP board is Carrie Walton Penner, a granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. She’s a trustee of the Walton Family Foundation, which last year announced a $1.5 million grant to expand the KIPP program in the Delta.

“KIPP’s success here in Arkansas and across the country is a model for what’s possible in public education,” she says. “My goal is to ensure that KIPP can continue to thrive for many years to come.”

The first part of that Delta expansion will come this summer when a KIPP middle school is opened in Blytheville. The new school in Mississippi County will begin with a fifth-grade class and add a grade each year through the eighth grade. After that, it’s likely a KIPP high school will begin in Blytheville.

There are now three schools in Helena that are part of the KIPP program — an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. The plan is to have 12 schools in four Delta towns during the next decade. Pine Bluff and West Memphis could be the next places to receive KIPP schools after Helena and Blytheville.

“Many of KIPP Delta’s graduating seniors never considered higher education before they started at KIPP as fifth-graders,” says Richard Barth, the KIPP CEO. “But because of their hard work and perseverance, these KIPP alumni will not only graduate from high school but also go on to succeed in college and life. … KIPP Delta is setting a new standard for rural education in the Delta and across the country. With KIPP expanding outside of Helena, there is tremendous opportunity ahead for students in the Delta to reach excellence.”

The goal of the KIPP Delta organization is to double the number of college-ready seniors graduating from high-poverty districts in east Arkansas by 2019. The term “college-ready graduates” is defined as graduating seniors who score at least 19 on both the math and language sections of the ACT, thus exempting them from remedial classes should they continue to college. That also would make them eligible for lottery scholarships in Arkansas.

If KIPP achieves that goal, imagine what that will mean for that often neglected part of our state.

Here’s how the school’s literature explains the KIPP approach: “KIPP Delta takes a rigorous, no excuses approach to education. In addition to a mandatory summer session, students are in class during the week from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., along with every other Saturday. KIPP students complete up to two hours of homework a night, and KIPP teachers are available on cell phones after hours for help and to answer questions from parents.

“KIPP is proving what is possible in public education for underserved students.  . . . KIPP forms a unique partnership where teachers have the freedom to innovate, parents are encouraged to be involved and students have the opportunity to learn. Students, parents and teachers sign a learning pledge — called the Commitment to Excellence — which outlines the hard work necessary for success.”

During their years in middle school, the students who are graduating tonight moved from the 29th to the 91st percentile in math on achievement tests and from the 29th to the 84th percentile in language. The consistent focus on measuring and reporting achievement results continued through high school.

Here’s how Kane Webb put it in a Wall Street Journal column several years ago: “In a state under court order to fix its public schools, there aren’t many examples of educational excellence. But because KIPP schools are charter schools, they operate free of the bureaucratic baloney that chokes the creativity out of so many traditional public schools and their teachers. And Delta College Prep is a different kind of charter school. You notice it right off. World map-sized posters of students’ test scores decorate the hallways — the way you would see a ‘Go Team!’ banner at a public high school. … There’s a dress code and detailed instructions about how to behave in class, right down to when to raise your hand.”

Congratulations, seniors.

You’ve blazed the trail. Hopefully, your success will mark the beginning of something even bigger in the Arkansas Delta.

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