Columns » John Brummett

Achieving and aspiring in the Delta

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HELENA - Javuena wants to go to Duke or Stanford and become a pediatrician or counselor. Brittany wants to go to Harvard, Yale or Stanford and become a nurse. Keatra wants to go to Stanford, Harvard or Dartmouth and become a lawyer. Over a cafeteria lunch of cheeseburgers and chocolate milk, I asked these girls where they got the idea they could attend such institutions. If you talk long enough with culturally disadvantaged sixth-graders in the heart of the downtrodden Arkansas Delta, you may find yourself condescending before you know it. "From Mr. Shirey," they said. Scott Shirey, a Massachusetts transplant not long out of college himself, directs the Delta College Preparatory School in the old train depot on Cherry Street in Helena. This is the second-year charter school that is part of a national movement encompassing 31 institutions and called KIPP, standing for the Knowledge is Power Program. Underwritten in part by the founders of the Gap and aided by the Walton Foundation and others, KIPP goes to tough places like the Arkansas Delta and the inner city to experiment with harder work, stricter discipline and higher aims. I'd first visited the school about this time last year. There were 65 students, all fifth-graders, all but two African-American. Shirey had gone practically house-to-house to beg almost for an inaugural class. The students wore T-shirts saying "there are no shortcuts." They attended classes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and occasionally for half-days on Saturdays. There would be a mandatory summer session. To get from classrooms to the lunchroom, students moved silently in single file along a stripe painted on the floor. They solved a mathematics division problem in a joint musical chant with a rhythmic cadence and rhyme. Dr. Michael Waverling, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, told me that kind of rote memorization is not valuable in the long term. But he said that if the school uses memorization tricks only as catch-up techniques for youngsters far behind, after which the focus turns to the vital modern challenge of applying knowledge, then maybe it's one way to go. That seems to be the case. "We don't chant in sixth grade," Keatra informed me on my return trip last week. Last year's class scored in the 17th percentile on a standardized national exam at the start of the year. It zoomed to the 48th percentile at the end. Forty-eight of the 65 fifth-graders returned for the new year last fall. Shirey, understanding attrition, says it would be great if 20 of those original 65 got college scholarships. Those who came back were joined by 60 new fifth-graders, all but two African-Americans again. The plan is to add a fifth grade class each year until the school operates grades five through eight. The steel frame stands directly across the street for a new 20,000-square-foot school building to be opened in September fully equipped for wireless Internet. The money came in a long-term mortgage for $2.3 million from the U.S. Agriculture Department, which has special loan programs for rural schools and rural telecommunications advancement. Surely you see the irony: While state policy-makers struggle to meet a court order to make public schools better and equal, this school in the heart of the state's poorest region achieved demonstrably under the latitude granted charter schools. That's the kind of thing public school detractors and tax opponents like to cite. But charter schools get regular per-pupil state funding in addition to their special grants and loans. And regular public schools in need of buildings must plead with voters for higher property taxes. Not everyone can get a USDA loan. Children in poverty have tended to perform poorly because of inadequate preschool preparation and the absence of encouragement and high expectations. KIPP aims to fill in the encouragement and expectations. The longer-range goal is to influence all public schools to imitate. There's early momentum in the Delta.

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