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Charter school group gets $2.6 million grant Educators: College-ready rolls will increase

Resource type: News

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock) |

by CYNTHIA HOWELL The Knowledge Is Power Program of charter schools in the Delta has received a $2.6 million grant to help open 10 more schools in four Arkansas towns by 2019. The schools would be patterned after the program’s Delta College Preparatory middle and high schools now operating in Helena-West Helena. Officials say the schools would increase the number of graduates ready for college from the Delta, an area with a history of mostly low academic performance and poor economic prospects. Monday’s announcement of the grant from the Coloradobased Charter School Growth Fund came on the same day the charter school organization received kudos from the Arkansas Board of Education for earning a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School award. The charter school organization also received unanimous Education Board approval for a plan to open an elementary charter school in Helena-West Helena next summer as part of the 10-school expansion. The Knowledge is Power Program, commonly known as KIPP, is a network of 66 charter schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. It began with a single middle school in Houston in 1994. Officials view the program in Arkansas as one of the state’s highly successful charter school programs because of students’ improved scores on annual staterequired standardized tests. The students come from the same socioeconomic background as the local traditional school. The new Delta Elementary Literacy Academy will start with 75 to 90 kindergarten pupils and will add a grade a year until the school serves as many as 450 pupils through fourth grade. The elementary school will support the already existing Delta College Preparatory middle and high schools in Helena-West Helena, laying the groundwork for an eventual kindergarten-through-12th grade charter school system in that city. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the Delta and students of the Delta,” Scott Shirey, executive director of the KIPP in Arkansas, said in an interview about the multimillion-dollar grant and the plans for the 12-school network, which include the existing schools in Helena-West Helena. The network would serve 3,600 students and include four high schools. “Those high schools could produce 60 college-ready graduates a year,” Shirey said, “meaning those students would score at or above a 19 on the ACT college-entrance exam. We are trying to double the number of kids in the Delta who score at 19 or better. That’s our goal – to graduate 240 kids, all of whom are ready for college.” High school students who score below 19 on the math and reading sections of the ACT exam must take noncredit remediation courses if they attend Arkansas’ public universities. Open-enrollment charter schools such as the KIPP schools in Helena-West Helena are public taxpayer-supported schools operated by non-profit organizations other than traditional public school systems. The schools, operated according to the terms of a charter, or contract, with the state of Arkansas, are exempt from some of the laws and rules that govern traditional public schools. In return for that flexibility, the state holds them to stricter requirements for student achievement. There are currently 17 open-enrollment charter schools in Arkansas. The Delta College Preparatory middle and high schools in Helena-West Helena use a longer school day, a longer school year and bimonthly Saturday classes to raise achievement among a student population in which a high percentage are from low-income families. Earlier this year, 86 percent of the Delta College Preparatory School’s eighth-graders scored at proficient or advanced on the state’s Benchmark math exam, compared with 23 percent of students in the surrounding Helena-West Helena School District. In addition to Helena-West Helena, sites identified for possible KIPP schools are Blytheville, Lake Village, Forrest City, Pine Bluff and West Memphis. But only three of those prospective towns are expected to get schools. An elementary, middle and high school would be placed in each of the three towns, Shirey said. The organization would start with a middle school in each place and then add high schools and elementary schools. Preliminary plans call for the first new middle school to be opened in 2010, with the addition of two more middle schools as soon as 2011, Shirey said. The state Education Board would have to approve each of the proposed schools. “We want to fire up pretty quickly,” Shirey said. “We’ll pick the sites based on need and on expressed desire. We want communities to say, `Here, this is why you should come here next.'” Jerry Woods, superintendent of the Forrest City School District, said in a telephone interview later Monday that he was not aware that the charter program might move into the 3,500-student Forrest City system. “That would definitely be a concern to this district and to districts of our size in surrounding communities districts with declining enrollments, which leads to financial concerns,” Woods said. “More importantly, we want to educate the children we have and educate them well.” Funding for public schools is based on student enrollment. If students leave a traditional public school for a charter school, state aid for that child goes to the charter school. The Charter School Growth Fund, the provider of the $2.6 million grant to the Arkansas program, is a national investment fund founded in 2005 to help high-performing charter schools expand. Organizations that contribute to the Charter School Grant Fund include the Walton Family Foundation Inc. of Bentonville, as well as organizations from across the country, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The $2.6 million will be used to offset infrastructure and operation expenses during the expansion of schools in east Arkansas. “The idea behind the Charter School Growth Fund is that you have a lot of small charter schools that don’t have the funds to support a strong central office until you get to a certain size,” Shirey said. “They will fund a central office that maybe has a technology director, a human-resources director or a chief financial officer to support the growth of the schools until the schools grow to the size where they can support the office themselves.” John Lock, the president and chief executive officer for the growth fund organization, said his organization selected KIPP Delta for the grant because of its record of success and its strong expansion plan. “KIPP Delta has a relentless focus on helping all students reach high standards, and its vision for growth will change the future for thousands of children in the region,” Lock said in a news release. Little Rock native Amanda Johnson will be the director of the Delta Elementary Literacy Academy to open next summer in Helena-West Helena. The addition of the elementary school creates the potential for a kindergarten through 12th-grade charter school system. Academics Plus Charter School in Maumelle and the eStem Public Elementary, Middle and High schools in Little Rock are similarly working to establish kindergarten through 12th-grade systems. Johnson, who is undergoing two-years of training and other preparations for the opening of the school, told the Education Board that the new school will instill in pupils the skills, character and traits they need to enter into and graduate from the finest middle schools, high schools and colleges. The Delta Elementary Literacy Academy is technically an amendment to the Delta College Preparatory School’s existing charter with the state. The amendment also raises the enrollment cap for the charter system by 450 to 1,100. Randy Lawson of Bentonville, chairman of the Education Board, said the board’s unanimous approval of the school is evidence of the organization’s great work. “To expand their program to offer more opportunities to more students just makes a lot of sense,” Lawson said. Rudolph Howard, superintendent of the Helena-West Helena School District, said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that he was reluctant to comment extensively about the new school that will compete with schools in his district. “I know it will definitely impact our already declining enrollment,” Howard said. “The playing field is too uneven as it relates to the operation of charter schools and public schools,” he said. “One is going to die, one way or another, particularly in small areas like this one is, where every student is needed to have enough revenue to support quality programs. When you lose students, it’s a real problem.”

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KIPP Foundation, Knowledge Is Power Program