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KIPP Stresses Character Building

HELENA, Ark. – For students who attend the KIPP school in this Arkansas Delta town, the price of admission to a school basketball game involves passing grades.

The charter school requires its pupils to bring their report cards with them to games in its gym. Anyone with an F is not allowed to enter.

The rule is an example of how KIPP Delta is trying to change the culture in the schools it operates in Helena and in Blytheville, Ark., both economically depressed communities.

The school focuses on preparing its students for higher education both by challenging them with a rigorous curriculum from the time they enter kindergarten and by emphasizing character and responsibility.

“KIPP is giving our students an opportunity to learn how to commit long term,” said Marshall Dalencourt, who has three children who attend KIPP schools. “They focus on team building and character building. They focus on the long goal.”

Its success drew a delegation of Mississippi lawmakers and education leaders to the school on Tuesday to learn more about it. The state soon will consider legislation to allow it to have more charter schools, publicly funded institutions free from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools.

Attendees spoke highly of the atmosphere that demanded much from students.

“I like the energy of the teachers. I like the energy of the students,” said Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “You cannot walk into a classroom here where students aren’t aggressively learning.”

The school’s efforts include a focus on soft skills, such as grit, self-control, optimism and curiosity.

Signs in classrooms proclaim such messages as, “Work hard, be nice.” Teachers may stop a lesson for teachable moments about bullying or responsibility.

“If you are a geometry teacher, geometry is your vehicle to teach things that are ultimately important,” said Luke VanDeWalle, chief academic officer for KIPP Delta. “Math is important, but so is being able to persist through difficult times.”

Collins said she was impressed by the schools’ emphasis on character, on accountability and on building relationships with parents.

“I don’t see anything here the traditional public schools can’t do,” she said. “This is a public school.”

Mississippi Interim State Superintendent Lynn House agreed, saying she was fascinated by how the school emphasized citizenship.

House, who noted she was familiar with KIPP, said it also was helpful to see how the school handled transportation and the recruitment and retention of teachers.

“I have not seen any instruction you don’t see in good schools in Mississippi, but the whole structure is what makes KIPP a unique place,” she said.

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