A cross-section of educators from throughout Arkansas met on the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff campus Thursday to continue a two-decade tradition of increasing access to education by sharing information on proven techniques for success.
The Twentieth Annual Mary E. Benjamin Conference on Educational Access: Models that Work in Arkansas was presided over by its namesake, the UAPB vice chancellor for academic affairs.
“We created this conference because we were very much concerned about remediation rates for students coming into the university and wanted to find a way to address it,” Benjamin said. “We needed to reach out to the pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade educators and to the community at large. There is no one silver bullet that will solve the problem but through this conference we are able to evaluate different methods that have produced successful outcomes.
“We want students to be both knowledgeable and to be ready for work when they graduate,” Benjamin said. “This yearly conference recognizes the importance of all of these leaders coming together and pursuing a common goal.”
Models that work
In its search for successful education models the conference organizers assembled a panel of three representing public charter schools, home schooling and public schools.
Public charter schools
Scott Shirey, executive director of the KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena-West Helena, outlined what that public charter school has done to bring educational opportunity to children there and in Blytheville.
“We are a public charter school, which means that we don’t charge our students to attend and enrollment is open to any who want to come as long as we have the room,” Shirey said.
Shirey said KIPP stands for Knowledge Is Power Program and that it was started in 1994 in Houston and 1995 in The Bronx, N.Y.
“We had students from the worst neighborhoods in Houston and the roughest parts of The Bronx who were getting into top college programs,” Shirey said.
Shirey laid out the five pillars that guide the school’s philosophy.
“First, we have high expectations and believe that all have a right to achieve,” Shirey said. “Part of that means our students have two hours of homework every night. Second, we emphasize choice and commitment. If you have access to wealth and money you have a choice on where your children go to school. If you do not have the economic means you don’t have a choice. So our schools provide that choice.”
Shirey said the third pillar is giving students more time to do what they need to do; the fourth pillar is the power to lead; and the fifth is focus on results.
“We are driven by one mission and that is getting these students to college,” Shirey said. “To show you how rural the area is that these students come from we drive 1,000 miles each day transporting students to and from school. Our yearly travel budget is $1 million. Some kids get on the bus before 6 a.m. and travel one hour each way because they want to be part of our program. We have 88 percent of our students on free and reduced lunch and 96 percent of them are African-American.”
Shirey said that extracurriculur activities are an important part of the educational process.
“We have a successful basketball program as well as choir, drama and dance,” Shirey said. “We realize that these activities are an important part of a child’s education.”
Shirey said that in 2009 the 11th-graders of KIPP Collegiate High School in Helena-West Helena had the second-highest literacy scores in the state and that the average ACT scores of the school’s students are 22.7 while the state average is 21.
“Another important statistic is that 87 percent of our graduated alumni from 2010, 2011 and 2012 are either enrolled in college or enlisted in the military,” Shirey said.
Melissa Savary is the director of The Education Alliance in Little Rock, which oversees home-schoolers in Arkansas.
“We believe parents have the right to choose how their children are educated,” Savary said. “After all, who knows children better than their parents? There are 17,000 home-schooled children in Arkansas and 2 million nationally.”
Savary said the state does require that home-schooled children in the third through ninth grades be given the same standardized tests that other students in the state must take.
“Every time there is another school shooting we see a rise in the number of home schooled children,” Savary said.
Tracy Tucker is the director of curriculum and instruction in the Division of Learning Services at the Arkansas Department of Education in Little Rock.
Tucker focused on the state’s relationship with the Literacy Design Collaborative, which allows for the infusion of writing into other subjects.
“The first goal of the LDC is to engage students in analyzing and responding to texts that they read,” Tucker said. “Second, we ensure that all assignments are aligned with the Common Core Standards. Third, we help teachers to personalize the learning experience to make it real to the students. Fourth, we ensure that students are college- and career-ready.”
Tucker said teachers are seeing higher levels of student engagement after participating in the program.
“In many instances students are leading the discussions,” Tucker said.
“It’s about our students being able to communicate with something besides their thumbs,” Tucker said. “We want them to be able to debate and argue a point.”
UAPB Chancellor Calvin Johnson provided a summation that tied the various themes together.
“The education of all children is the responsibility of the state of Arkansas,” Johnson said. “Most of us are products of public schools but we have come to appreciate other educational options. W cannot argue with the success of the KIPP School. We should have high expectations for our children wherever they are taught. The state requires home-school students to meet standards. The public schools in Arkansas are doing better than they ever have before.”
Johnson said colleges and universities must work with pre-K through 12th-grade schools to ease the transition to college.
“For too long we have prepared our students to graduate, not to continue with their education,” Johnson said. “If we change the way we see things, the things we see will change.”.