It is great news for the children of Mississippi County that soon there will be a KIPP charter school in Blytheville. That’s the most important thing.
But I simply must begin with an anecdote about how it’s also great news for state Sen. Steve Bryles of Blytheville.
In 2003 Bryles was an inexperienced state senator fretful about the future of his depressed home community. He was convinced that new thinking on public education was essential.
He had observed rapid and remarkable gains in a start-up class of fifth graders at a KIPP school in downtown Helena, presumptuously called the Delta College Preparatory School. It now offers grades 5 through 12, and, as it happens, was quite accurately called "college preparatory." Now KIPP is launching this fall an elementary "literacy academy" in Helena-West Helena.
The record of academic gains by disadvantaged kids in that KIPP school — and in KIPP schools in depressed areas across the country — is empirically unassailable.
Bryles had read extensively on the KIPP concept, which was longer school days, occasional school sessions on Saturdays and in summers, uniforms, strict discipline, mantras that there are no excuses or shortcuts and a rote chanting system of learning to get kids far behind close to the norm in the shortest period of time.
He decided to attend the meeting of the National Association of State Legislators that year in San Francisco mainly because, with legislative colleague Jim Argue in tow, he wanted to venture to Berkeley to the University of California. There he wanted to observe and make certain pleas of the Fisher Fellows program.
That was the training program for KIPP school administrators, serving only 15 students at a time, endowed by the founders of the Gap and Banana Republic.
As Argue told it, the two of them were being engaged by a Berkeley official, who was explaining the program, when Bryles became a tad overcome.
He pounded a table with his fist and said, "I want a KIPP school in Blytheville, dammit."
The Cal-Berkeley fellow then pounded the table right back and said, "Then get me a fellow, dammit," by which he meant a Fisher program applicant who could win one of the 15 slots and then return to Blytheville to run a school.
Now, six years later, KIPP has decided to expand incrementally across the Delta region of East Arkansas. The original Helena administrator, Scott Shirey, will be the statewide overseer. Several disadvantaged communities have been invited to make applications for charter schools to be opened over the next decade.
It was announced Wednesday that Blytheville was the first to be chosen. It will start with a fifth-grade class next summer and fall. It will keep adding fifth-grade classes as the former one moves on to the sixth, and so forth through the eighth grade. This initially will be only a middle school.
Why Blytheville? Because of Bryles, first and foremost, but also others. They include Maisie Wright, a teacher at the KIPP school in Helena-West Helena who agreed to run the Blytheville school and won a Fisher Fellowship.
Others cited and praised by Bryles included Liz Smith, a former Mississippi County teacher who went to Manhattan to work in advertising and came home to run the local chamber of commerce; Cliff Chitwood, head of an uncommonly united countywide economic development foundation in Mississippi County; Sam Scruggs, a local African-American leader; and Mary Gay Shipley, an uncommonly progressive, connected and energetic bookstore owner in Blytheville.
They did not include officials of the local public schools, who objected — of course and alas — mainly on account of losing money.
KIPP schools are public charters that take kids, and thus take per-pupil funding, from the regular public schools. But turf and the educational status quo are wholly beside the point. Kids and opportunities — those are the points.
Anyway, the state softens the financial loss to the regular public school by phasing it out over three years, doing so in deference to the needs of the kids left there.
And the whole idea is for a so-called tipping point to be reached by which a community education ethic will be achieved and the regular public schools will get better themselves.
Brummett is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is email@example.com; his telephone number is (501) 374-0699.