“In America your zip code or your socioeconomic status should never determine the quality of your education.” — Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education
Education was the focus of the second mountaintop session of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Uncommon Communities program, a community and economic development initiative designed by the Institute in partnership with Dr. Vaughn and Sandy Grisham of the University of Mississippi and Dr. Mark Peterson of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service and Dr. Roby Robertson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Government. This might have seemed like a dramatic shift in topics to the participants from Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell counties, who during the first session learned about the power of good leadership and how simple improvement projects—a new coat of paint here, a few trees planted there—can lead to a town’s renaissance.
If the first session, held at the end of August, was about inspiration and motivation, this session was about getting down to some serious work. And where better to start than with education—after all, every town’s future depends on today’s children. Two keynote speakers on Saturday, Nov. 7, shared their approaches to the specific challenges of rural education in two very different rural environments: northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas Delta.
When Daisy Dyer Duerr took over as principal of the failing 199-student St. Paul elementary and high schools in 2011, she had two basic goals: to strengthen relationships and to use technology to provide a global education for a tiny town where dirt roads and generational poverty are the norm and graduating from high school, much less going to college, isn’t. After showing a (sometimes alarming) video that detailed the ways in which Generation Z—learners between the ages of 2 and 20 now—is growing up “technology complete,” she outlined how she became a “digital principal” and used that technology to rocket test scores and, ultimately, land the tiny St. Paul High School a Bronze rating from U.S. News and World Report, along with national acclaim.
It started with a $6,000 grant, which Duerr used to buy digital readers. She explained that the “cool factor” alone helped increase the number of male readers by more than 50 percent. When it turned out that Duerr had been the only Arkansas applicant for Title 1 grant money, that $6,000 turned into $50,000, and Duerr outfitted teachers and classrooms with iPads, sending the teachers home with them over the summer with a strict mandate that they immerse themselves in the technology and come back in the fall armed with innovative ways to employ them in their teaching.
Then Duerr did something really controversial: She told students to bring their smartphones to school. In a time when most schools have a no-tolerance policy regarding cell phones, Duerr saw an opportunity to increase her students’ access to information and electronic educational tools. In 2012, St. Paul Elementary was named one of 25 “Model Schools” by the International Center for Leadership in Education; St. Paul High School followed in 2014.
Following Ms. Duerr was Scott Shirey, the founder and executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, who was named one of the world’s seven most powerful educators by Forbes Magazine in 2011. The KIPP Delta Schools—KIPP stands for “Knowledge is Power Program”—are a collection of six public preparatory schools in Arkansas: three in Helena-West Helena, two in Blytheville and one in Forrest City. Despite the fact that they are in some of the most resource-deprived counties in the state (the overwhelming majority of KIPP Delta students, at all grade levels, qualify for free and reduced lunches), these schools consistently outperform other public schools in the area.
The KIPP schools originated in Houston, Texas, where two Teach for America teachers were trying to find a way to keep students more involved in school and steer them away from any path leading to drugs, crime and prison. They invited 50 students to participate in an intensive program that included nightly homework assignments and Saturday school. Not surprisingly, test scores began to go up for these students.
The two teachers sensed that they were onto something, and the first two official KIPP middle schools were opened the following year, in Houston and New York City. By the end of the decade, the stellar performance of these schools had attracted the attention of 60 Minutes and of Gap Inc. founders Don and Doris Fisher. While the founders worked on creating a replicable blueprint for new KIPP schools to be founded elsewhere, the Fishers created the Fisher Fellowship, a one-year program that prepares founders to establish and lead KIPP Schools.
This is where Shirey comes in—with the founding of the first KIPP Delta middle school in 2002. When Shirey arrived in Helena, the word “preparatory” was misspelled on local school buses. Sixty-five fifth-graders entered the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School with collective math and literature test scores below the 20th percentile; by the end of the year, they were at the 49th percentile. In four years, by the time those fifth-graders were in ninth grade, their average had risen to the 91st percentile. The first KIPP Delta school had busted a long-held myth when it comes to low-achieving students by proving that “it’s not the kids.”
By 2009, the KIPP Delta schools had more African-American students passing AP calculus and English than any other school in Arkansas, and they had the second-highest 11th-grade literacy scores (second to the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Science and the Arts, admission to which is dependent upon grades and test scores, unlike at KIPP). KIPP students have earned to date $6 million in college scholarships, and those students will graduate from college in numbers many times over the national average for students from low-income families. It’s worth noting here that the six Arkansas KIPP Delta schools are the only KIPP schools out of 183 nationwide that serve primarily rural students.
What the KIPP Delta and St. Paul schools demonstrate is that it doesn’t take big-city resources to achieve big-time educational success—just hard work by smart and dedicated people who firmly believe that Arne Duncan’s words above are, or at least should be, true.