KIPP Delta, the charter school system based out of Helena, has received a $500,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation to execute a two-year pilot program that will partner KIPP with with two traditional public school districts in the Arkansas Delta. 

The “KIPP Through College” program places college counselors in Helena-West Helena’s Central High School (which is just down the road from KIPP’s campus in Phillips County) as well as Marianna High School in nearby Lee County. The goal of the program — which is already operational — is to increase the number of college-bound students from both Helena and Mariana.

For now, I won’t wade too deeply into the treacherous waters of the charters-versus-traditional-schools debate. But in brief: KIPP Delta has achieved impressive things with the kids it serves, who are overwhelmingly black and mostly from poor households. Its graduates have college-going rates of above 75 percent; that can’t be ignored. On the other hand, critics of charters — such as Max — fairly point out that struggling traditional school districts such as Helena-West Helena suffer when their most promising students leave to enroll in charters. It seems likely that the kids left behind in those traditional schools suffer by extension. (There are many, many more layers to both sides of that arguments, however.)

Yet there’s no reason why charters and traditional public schools should be pitted against one another. It seems to me that a partnership of this kind points to one way that a charter can work to complement a traditional school district, not undermine it. I spoke about the program this afternoon with Scott Shirey, Executive Director of KIPP Delta. 

“We’re hiring college counselors who will be trained by and work for our team but be placed in Helena-West Helena and Lee County,” Shirey said. “They’ll be taking our college process, going through it with those students and working collaboratively with the school districts. Part of that is help with ACT registration, help with FAFSA, assistance with various fees, taking kids on college tours, bringing colleges to our community, helping with college applications and scholarships.”

There’s also an economy of scale effect that stands to benefit KIPP, Shirey said. KIPP is a small school, with just 39 graduating seniors this year. HWH and Lee County have many more. That should help to attract college recruiters to visit the Delta. “Now when you contact, say, Spellman, you can say there are hundreds of seniors in these communities headed to college.”

Although traditional high schools also have staff dedicated to the job of getting kids onto a postsecondary track, Shirey said, they’re usually overworked. “The traditional high school counselor in Arkansas doesn’t have the bandwidth to tackle every student,” he said.

According to Shirey, the partnership itself has gone smoothly thus far, with the traditional districts receptive to the collaboration. “The doors of communication have been great. Of course, anytime you approach a partnership like this, people want to get an understanding before they proceed forward. But we’ve got a wonderful, warm embrace as we’ve gone into the schools.”

“We were deliberate to make sure this was not KIPP coming to tell you how to do things, but us offering support and working to do things collaboratively. What we’ve found is an eagerness to work with us, to learn. They’ve been great, and the kids have been incredibly enthusiastic.”

Funding for education reporting provided by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.