Recent Press

Raising the Bar

Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock, AR)

“Raising the bar”

By Scott Shirey (op-ed)

July 11, 2014 

I'm a firm believer in the importance of college. As executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, and a former teacher and school director, I've dedicated my career to supporting young people in the journey to and through college.

And as a father of two school-age children, I know I will do everything I can to help my own children earn college degrees.

In over a decade of experience working with underserved students at KIPP Delta's public charter schools in Helena and Blytheville, I've seen that college readiness must start early and continue all the way through high school. Unfortunately, as a state, we're falling short of that mark.

Arkansas' average ACT for all groups--20.2--is below the college readiness benchmark of 21, and the average is even lower for students residing in low-income communities.

Today, more than ever, it is our responsibility to set new and higher standards for our state's education system. Our ability to move forward as a state relies on creating greater equity in the educational outcomes of our students. Accomplishing that will mean rethinking the way we measure student success and prepare kids for college.

I have three recommendations to help ensure that our students have access to the high-quality college-prep education they deserve:

Embrace Common Core

In our current reality, where you're born greatly affects how prepared you'll be for college. Nearly 80 percent of children growing up in a high-income community will graduate from college, compared with 10 percent of their bottom-income-quartile peers. In order to fix that, we'll need to make sure that all students, in Arkansas and elsewhere, are being held to the same college-preparatory standards.

The Common Core state standards help us better understand and address this gap, and therefore represent a positive first step. The continued implementation of Common Core will allow us to compare our students' performance with those from across the country.

Unifying state standards means that children educated here in Arkansas are held to the same standard as those in California and New York. And the Common Core's focus on college readiness means that those students will be getting prepared for college, no matter where they live.

Focus on college completion

Historically, students from underserved backgrounds have had a difficult climb to and through college. In Arkansas, black students have a 6 percent chance of graduating from public colleges in four years, and a 22 percent chance in six years. But there are some exceptions, and we need to pay attention to them.

In general, schools that have stronger support on campus for first-generation college students will also have higher graduation rates for those students. Without this knowledge, students often end up applying to less-selective schools with lower graduation rates. K-12 school systems need to help students consider these factors when looking at colleges, and colleges need to provide stronger social, emotional, academic and financial support for students.

In addition, finances can be a huge burden for underserved students in college. Arkansas lawmakers should continue to prioritize and expand programs and funding that reduce tuition costs for students. This way, we can send the resoundingly clear message that the status quo of unaffordability is unacceptable.

Keep track of college students

A public K-12 school's ultimate success rests heavily on its ability to produce high-achieving and productive members of society. In order to track this, we need to find out where graduates go and what they do. Currently, high school graduate tracking in Arkansas only reflects students who go on to public institutions in the state. The state must work with school districts to implement a uniform system for tracking high school graduates through college, including those who head to out-of-state schools.

At KIPP, we keep track of all students who finish eighth grade with us through our KIPP Through College program. As a result, we know that, nationally, KIPP alumni graduate from college at four times the national low-income six-year average. All public schools in Arkansas should be able to access similar information in order to create a culture of choice and accountability.

We owe it to future generations to focus state resources on fulfilling the college and career aspirations of our students from all walks of life. If we do not do so, we risk keeping the bar much too low for students in the Natural State.


Scott Shirey is the executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools.


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