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Reeves, Senators Tout Charters on Arkansas Visit

HELENA, Ark. – On the walls of the foyer that leads to the high school and middle school of the KIPP Delta Public Schools are banners from all of the universities its students are now attending.
There are four KIPP graduates at Vanderbilt University, one at the Naval Academy and numerous KIPP graduates at the local community college.

While 89 percent of its students come from poverty, 93 percent of the graduates of the K-12 school that opened in 2002 with a fifth-grade class are now in college or the military. That’s compared with the national rate of 8 percent of children in the lowest economic quartile who attend college.

“Our mission is to get kids through college who don’t normally have that opportunity,” said Luke VanDeWalle, chief academic officer for KIPP Delta.

Mississippi Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said those college banners are an example of the excellence the charter school brings to this impoverished Arkansas Delta river town across the Mississippi River about 30 miles north of Clarksdale.

“We have to have this,” said Tollison, who along with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, interim state Superintendent of Education Lynn House and three other state senators toured the 900-student school. “There are students in Mississippi not being given the opportunity because they are trapped in failing schools. They should be given a choice.”

Reeves said the tour reinforces what he already described as “a passion” to pass charter school legislation during the 2013 session. Charter school legislation this year passed the Senate where Reeves presides but died in the House.

Charter schools receive taxpayer funds, but operate outside of the governance and many of the regulations of traditional public schools, though they are subject to the same accountability standards.

Opponents say charter schools take funds and often the best students from traditional public schools. What the operators of KIPP Delta said Tuesday is that the school takes all comers, whatever their academic status, through a lottery because it cannot accommodate everyone. It holds high expectations of students, parents and staff.

“If it can happen in Helena, Ark., it can happen across the river,” Reeves said. “I personally support charter schools anywhere in Mississippi.”

That could be an issue next session. Many say they support allowing charter schools to locate in districts that are designated as D or F under Mississippi Board of Education guidelines. The KIPP Delta School is located in a district that has struggled academically.

Reeves said there are 45,000 students “trapped” in failing schools within “successful” districts. And he said that there are students in outstanding districts that might do better in charter schools.
Collins agreed. “What I can see is a public charter school being allowed anywhere parents see the need for it,” she said. “If they want it and see the need for it, it should be allowed.”

Marshall Dalencourt of the Helena area said one of her three children told her that KIPP stood for Kids in Private Prison when she told them they were going to the charter school. But she said she believes the school gives her children more opportunities and gave her more of a say in her children’s education.

KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) is a national program started by people involved with Teach for America, which sends outstanding recent college graduates into low-income areas to teach. Many of the teachers in the Helena KIPP school are young and from out of state. Many are or were part of Teach for America. But the school is now recruiting more local teachers.

Nathan Whitfield, a Harvard-educated Helena native who graduated from the state’s Math and Science School, is a math teacher in the high school. He addressed his students as Mr. and Ms. as he explained an equation that took up his whole chalkboard.

House, who will serve as interim state superintendent at least through the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, said the Mississippi Board of Education is not opposed to charter schools.

Before the session starts, House said the board will adopt a charter school position paper she said will reiterate the board’s belief that it should be the authorizing authority for charter schools instead of a new entity. Plus, House said she believes the board will voice support for allowing charter schools in low-performing areas like Helena instead of statewide like Reeves and senators on Tuesday’s tour support.

Where to allow charter schools and who will be the authorizing authority will likely be the two most debated issues surrounding charter schools during the upcoming session.

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