Op-Ed: For Students, ‘Zip Code Does Not Define Destiny’

As the founder and Executive Director of KIPP Delta Public Schools—a network of four college-preparatory public charter schools in Helena and Blytheville, Arkansas—I have dedicated my career to preparing some of the most underserved students in Arkansas for college and the world beyond.

Ten years after opening our doors to 65 fifth graders in 2002, we now serve over 1,150 students in Pre K-12. Critical to our growth and success is the enduring belief that zip code does not define destiny. Our students have consistently invalidated statistics suggesting those living in lower income communities are somehow less capable. Rather, 90 percent college and military persistence rates from our first three graduating classes suggest quite the opposite.

With this background in mind, there is one topic I would like to discuss in greater detail: the importance of educational choice within rural communities.

More: Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The ‘Dramatic Realities’ Kids Face in the Mississippi Delta

Living in Helena, which has a population of approximately 12,000, I have seen the profound difference successful charter schools can make for students. This opportunity is one that all families, living in both rural and urban settings, deserve.

Since the early 2000s, the charter movement has exploded nationwide and proliferated especially in urban areas. For example, there are more than 130 public charter schools in New York City’s five boroughs alone. However, sometimes forgotten in this rapid expansion of educational choice are rural regions, which oftentimes feature the same dire circumstances of educational inequity.

While recent trends suggest rural charters are the fastest growing segment of the sector, research also posits more high quality public charters are needed to meet the educational demands of students in these rural communities.

The story of KIPP Delta is one of an educational institution breathing new life in a rural community. In a town which has seen its population diminish in recent years, we have expanded employment opportunities with the simultaneous expansion of schools. Our staff has grown from four employees in 2002 to over 170 today. There is also evidence we are helping establish Helena and Blytheville as epicenters for neighboring and even smaller communities—nearly a quarter of our students commute from towns surrounding ours.

We have invested in infrastructure, building a state-of-the-art gymnasium to house our athletic programs and renovated a once abandoned theatre building downtown into a facility which now hosts our school’s drama productions. Our academic results have helped establish a sense of pride that students from our communities are just as capable as those from anywhere else—recently, our high school was named the number two high school in Arkansas for academics by U.S. News & World Report.

All of these examples suggest we can, and have, provided a sense of hope and optimism for communities which previously had been in economic decline. The critical point here is the relatively larger impact we can have given our placement in a rural community. Our story does not have to be unique—the increase of educational choice within rural America would have tremendous payoff, both for its students and its communities.    

To help support the cause for educational choice in a rural community, I invite you to complete a quick and easy task which could easily result in a large gift to our schools. KIPP Delta has been nominated for a grant of $50,000 from the Clorox Power a Brighter Future campaign to help fund a desperately needed computer lab for our high school.  Right around 3,000 other schools across the nation were nominated as well. Between now and December 15, voting is open for all nominees.  The seven schools with the most votes will win $25,000 - $50,000 each for their nominated project.  Here is a link to our project. Texting 2618pbf to the number 95248 once daily can help improve our chances to receiving this gift for our students and their brighter futures.

These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.

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Scott Shirey is the founder and Executive Director of KIPP Delta Public Schools. Prior to founding KIPPDelta College Preparatory School in 2002, Mr. Shirey completed the KIPP School Leadership Program. Mr. Shirey taught for three years in Baton Rouge Louisiana where he was a Teach For America corps member. In November 2011, Forbes Magazine listed Mr. Shirey as one of the world’s seven most powerful educators.