Rural, poor, successful: Every Arkansas KIPP Delta grad accepted into college

ByBilly Watkins

Diamond Akiniboboye answers immediately when asked where she will attend college.

“I plan to go to Duke University,” she says.

She also is quick to say what year she will begin studying there: 2025.

Diamond is 6 years old and in kindergarten. Her matter-of-fact approach that college is an expected step is what the charter school in downtown Helena, Ark. — KIPP Delta Public School — constantly preaches. And then it provides its 1,150 students the necessary education and guidance to make that goal attainable.

KIPP — Knowledge Is Power Program — is the model some Mississippi legislators and parents have in mind in pushing to enact a strong law that will open the way for charter schools in the state.

“We make sure the idea of going to college is emphasized to our students every single day,” says Amanda Johnson, director of KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy. “Whether it’s a banner each grade has with the year they will begin college, or going on a field trip to a college or university, or simply talking about it.”

The facts say KIPP Delta, which started in 2002 as a fifth-grade-only school with 65 students, is doing something right. In 2008, KIPP Delta College Preparatory (grades 5 through 8) was one of only three Arkansas schools to earn Blue Ribbon status from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2012, KIPP Delta Collegiate High was rated No. 2 in the state by U.S. News and World Report magazine. And since graduating its first class in 2010, every student who earned a KIPP Delta diploma has been accepted by a college or university.

It hasn’t always been that way for students in this rural, economically challenged area of the Arkansas Delta, about 35 miles northwest of Clarksdale.

“If this school would’ve been here when I was growing up, I wouldn’t be working at a deli right now,” says 38-year-old Nancy Banks, who had two children graduate from KIPP Delta and has four others currently attending. “We simply didn’t have the teachers and administrators to push us the way these students are being pushed.

“And coming from a family that never had anyone to finish college, I want this so badly for my children.”


Scott Shirey receives a huge portion of credit for making KIPP Delta a reality.

After teaching history and social studies in a Baton Rouge middle school for three years, Shirey joined Teach For America, a national teacher corps of college graduates who commit to working for at least two years in schools located in poor, rural areas.

“They told me, ‘Scott, we have the perfect place for you,’ ” he says, “meaning the Delta region of Arkansas.”

The state wanted to open a charter school in Helena and needed someone to recruit enough students for one grade. Now days, students are chosen through a lottery system.

“Basically, I strapped on a backpack in January 2002 and went for it,” says Shirey, who grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “I think it helped that I was 25 years old at the time and maybe a bit naive about the obstacles I would be facing. But the main thing was I saw the possibilities that KIPP had to offer.

“I was like a horse with blinders. We were going to change education in this part of the Delta. Every kid I met was going to college — at least that’s the way I approached it.

“Most parents had never had a school administrator in their home, and many of the neighborhoods I went into had certainly never had a white guy trying to recruit their 11- or 12-year-old to a new school. And most of the people I met with really didn’t understand what a charter school is. They would say things like ‘My kid isn’t a troublemaker. He doesn’t need this.’ Or they would say, ‘My kid is making straight A’s already. Why would we want to change?’

“But the toughest question I heard, and this one always got to me, was ‘Do you believe these children can learn?’ I think we’ve driven a stake through the heart of that question. It’s no longer acceptable thinking that children from the Delta are doomed for failure. With the right environment, leadership and teachers, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, how much money your parents have, or where you were born. You can be successful.”

KIPP Delta wasn’t an easy sell to parents, many of whom had never heard of a charter school. But Shirey’s pitch was powerful .

“I knew about Mr. Shirey and the red Honda car he drove around recruiting kids,” Banks says. “To be honest, I never thought he would come into the neighborhood that we lived in at the time. The best way to describe it was rundown. But I was so happy when that man knocked on our door. He convinced me that he could get my kids to college.”

Banks has become one of KIPP Delta’s most determined recruiters.

“I had to work hard on my sister,” Banks says. “She owns a beauty shop in Helena, and she kept thinking KIPP was like a military school — too strict, too long a school day (7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.). I was in her shop one afternoon talking to her about KIPP, and I texted Mr. (Marcus) Nelson, the middle school principal. I said, ‘I need you at the beauty shop ASAP.’ He came right away, and we signed my sister’s children up that day.”

Banks’ eldest child, Danielle, graduated in 2010 and is finishing this year at Phillips Community College in Helena. Jermaine, 19, graduated in 2011 and chose the Army over college.

“Jermaine didn’t want to be at KIPP,” Banks says, “and he gave the teachers a hard time. But he is currently over a platoon in Afghanistan. He tells me all the time, ‘Mama, the stuff I learned at KIPP is just now kicking in — the discipline and leadership. It’s paying off.’ ”


So how has KIPP Delta become one of Arkansas’ top schools in such a short time?

“I get that question a lot,” says Johnson, who grew up in Little Rock and attended Rhodes College in Memphis. “People want to know what our secret is. And I explain that there is no magic bullet, no one thing that a school could take from us, apply it and see results change overnight. There are several things we do, and we approach those things with high expectations and consistency.”

Banners from colleges and universities adorn the hallways, signifying where KIPP Delta graduates are attending — among them, the University of Arkansas, Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

KIPP Delta’s team includes teachers with more than 20 years’ experience in Arkansas public schools. It also has younger teachers who view their profession as “a calling” and approach it passionately every day.

One of them is 32-year-old LaKeda Ward, whose third- and fourth-grade math classes are fast-paced and interactive with Ward going beyond solving problems on a dry board.

“I don’t want them just to work the problem,” she says. “I want them to understand how and why a problem is solved.”

She is demanding but quick to reward. A correct answer is often met by Ward and the rest of the class with two quick finger snaps.

“Sometimes we do what we call Delta Shine,” Ward says. “When a student is called on and answers correctly, the other students will move their hands toward that person, meaning that student has extra learning power.”

Many of Ward’s third- and fourth-graders are learning on a fifth-grade level. “We want to make sure we put each student where he or she needs to be so that we don’t stunt their learning growth,” she says.

Ward grew up in West Helena “so I know these kids. I’ve walked in their footsteps.”

Ward accepted an athletic scholarship in 1999 to Mississippi Valley State where she was a standout on the basketball and volleyball teams. She earned her undergraduate degree in 2003 and her master’s in arts and teaching in 2006. While working on her master’s, she taught for six years at W.C. Williams Elementary in Greenwood.

“When I would come back home to visit, I noticed this new school that had popped up in downtown Helena,” Ward says. “I was like ‘What is this place?’ I looked it up on the Internet, read the school’s mission, and immediately became interested. I wanted to help the children in this area because this is not an easy place to grow up if you’re not from a family that is educated or privileged.”

Ward joined KIPP in 2009. “I can tell you after six years teaching in Greenwood that a school like KIPP could change those Mississippi children’s lives,” Ward says.


Shirey believes charter schools should be part of America’s fabric.

“It’s about providing a choice for parents,” he says. “It’s a democratic right. If you get sick, you have a choice of what doctor or hospital you go to. It seems every sector works that way except education. And we still live in a society where those with economic means have a choice, those who don’t have to take what is offered. I have a hard time seeing what’s right about that.

“We have to get past the notion that public schools serve all children equally well. And you don’t have to make a choice to be in favor of only traditional public schools or only charter schools. You can like both. Again, it’s simply about providing a choice.”

Suzanne McCommon, superintendent of the Helena-West Helena School District that has no say-so over KIPP Delta, emphasizes she harbors “no animousity” toward the charter school and praises its high marks.

“But it has come at a cost to my schools,” she says. “With KIPP having approximately 1,000 students, it has reduced our total enrollment to about 1,700. And each student who left our school district cost us about $8,000 in funds.

“We’ve gone from three elementary schools to one. Charter schools have always said they don’t take anything away from (traditional) public schools in their area. But I think the facts show that they do.”

While McCommon favors parents having a choice concerning their children’s education, she says “we must be careful that we don’t segregate students based on income and support levels at home.”

McCommon says KIPP’s lottery system is good in theory but fails to include all students.

“Parents who aren’t demanding when it comes to their children’s grades, who don’t push their children to do their best on a daily basis are probably not going to sit down and fill out a rather complicated application for their child to enroll at KIPP,” McCommon says.

KIPP schools nationally believe a lottery system is the only fair way to conduct enrollment. And each faces its own story of financial challenges.

Because charter schools receive only a portion of the funding traditional public schools are given, fund-raising through grants, corporations and individuals is a necessity. KIPP Delta must raise 20 percent of its annual budget, or about $2.3 million for the current school year. That money goes toward salaries, supplies, furniture, transportation costs and more. KIPP Delta accepts students within an hour of Helena, so its buses travel some 1,000 miles per day.

Teachers and administrators at KIPP Delta say it’s worth the trouble.

“I can’t tell you what it means to hear time and time again from families, ‘We believe in you’ and ‘Thank you for what you’re doing for my child,’ ” says Shavonne Ward, a fifth-grade language arts teacher who grew up in New York City’s Bronx (and is no relation to Lakeda Ward). “I was supposed to be at KIPP for two years through Teach for America, and now I’ve been here four. I see what a difference it is making.”

But KIPP’s leaders don’t slow down long enough to pat themselves on the back.

“It’s not about what we’ve accomplished,” Shirey says, “but what we hope to accomplish in the coming years.”

He finds the story of Diamond Akiniboboye rewarding. “At the same time, I’m wondering, ‘Is she reading enough? Are her parents reading enough with her? Is the family putting aside some funds for her to go to Duke? Do they know how much financial aid might be available?’ These are all deeper conversations we must have.”