More bittersweet news to report: My last day with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF) will be this Friday. What a fantastic bunch of people I’ve been blessed to work with over the past few years. I’m still amazed at how much good this organization has achieved on behalf of all Arkansans since it was founded 30 short years ago. I’ve heard countless stories about kids who now have access to health insurance and preschool for the first time; students who’ve survived the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and gone on to build healthy and productive lives; working families who are finding it a bit easier to make ends meet, etc., etc. — much of which would not have happened without AACF’s leadership. I am proud to have been a small part of it, however briefly. I won’t miss my colleagues at all, because I’ll still be hanging out and advocating with them all the time.

Now another door has opened, quite unexpectedly yet fittingly: I’ll be helping KIPP Delta Public Schools expand its marvelous college prep campuses throughout the Arkansas Delta, from right here in Little Rock. (Kind of like the club I started to do just that a few months ago. New members are still being accepted.)

My new title is “Chief Development Officer,” which means I’ll be hunting for money to help make up for the 20-30 percent less funding that public charter school students receive from the state under current law. It also means I’ll be doing a bit of legislative advocacy, communications, facilities shopping, and whatever else needs to be done to help KIPP’s students succeed. It’s both thrilling and intimidating; I’ve seen these kids in action, and they’re really sharp. I hope I can keep up.

Stay tuned!

P.S. Now I’m recruiting for two organizations: If you or someone you know would be a great senior policy analyst at AACF or leader of a new KIPP school in the Arkansas Delta, please get in touch ASAP: Superheroes are especially encouraged to apply.


Tomorrow I head to the hills for the first Fayetteville football game of the year. Yay.

I intend to do some recruiting of my own this season. Remember this little competition? If we still want one of the best public schools in the nation to come to Pine Bluff or another town in the Arkansas Delta in 2011 (and yes, we do), then we have to recruit the best school leader ASAP.

In order to run the next KIPP Delta middle school in Arkansas, the school leader must undergo a year-long, intensive training process, known as a Fisher Fellowship. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn and work with some of the brightest, most passionate school reformers in the nation. The priority deadline for candidates is October 30, 2009, and the final deadline is February 19, 2010. To learn more about the fellowship, visit

Are you up for the challenge, or know someone who might be? Then please contact our coalition immediately at, or contact KIPP Delta directly at:

KIPP Delta Public Schools
415 Ohio Street
Helena-West Helena, AR 72342
Main Office: 870-753-9035

Please spread the word to everyone you know who cares about Arkansas’s future and is ready for us to move waaaaay beyond adequacy to excellence for all of our kids, especially those at the greatest disadvantage.

This is Don and Doris Fisher. They founded The Gap. Theyre also looking for the worlds most awesome school leader right here in Arkansas.

This is Don and Doris Fisher. They founded The Gap, to help you look cute. They're also looking for the world's most awesome school leader right here in Arkansas. Let's not disappoint these nice people.

Update: Mr. Fisher passed away on September 27, 2009, after a long battle with cancer. What an incredible legacy he leaves behind. We definitely can’t let him down now.

The new commish


Congrats to Dr. Tom Kimbrell, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA), on being recommended by Governor Mike Beebe as Arkansas’s new education commissioner. It’s an exciting time to be in education policy, especially in Arkansas. I look forward to working with Dr. Kimbrell in his new capacity and helping move Arkansas from adequacy to excellence.

. . .

Below is a picture I took of a painting by students at J.A. Fair Magnet High School, which hangs in the lobby of the AAEA’s new offices. As I can recall, the painting depicts a handful of the trillions of synapses that the brain forms while learning, superimposed over the number of minutes that most students spend in school until graduation.

This is your brain on school.

Pity party so ovah. Round two begins this week, folks.

Need inspiration? Watch Howard Fuller preach about the good, the bad, and the very ugly of education reform at this year’s National Charter Schools Conference.  Oh my stars.

“[I]f you’re sitting in this room today . . . and you know that in your heart, and in your soul, you don’t have the best interests of our children [at heart], then you know what? Just take your [conference] t-shirt and go home and find something else to do with your life. Just take your t-shirt and work out.”

Hallelujah, amen. Can he get a witness?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

John Brummett has a very nice column today about state Sen. Steve Bryles and his well-deserved win of a new KIPP public school for Blytheville.

The Commercial also has some nice words of consolation for the loser:

“LESSON LEARNED OVER KIPP SCHOOL”Pine Bluff Commercial editorial board, 8/30/09

KIPP Delta Schools selected Blytheville over Pine Bluff and West Memphis as the first site for a KIPP school outside of Helena in the Arkansas Delta. No one likes coming in second or third when your choice is, well, being first.

Congratulations to Blytheville, a city that also wanted the school for all the right reasons. We may never know all of the reasons Blytheville was picked, but our colleague John Brummett offers a well-reasoned explanation on how Blytheville was chosen in his column elsewhere on this page. The application process considered a number of factors, including local support, parental demand, and availability of facilities and funding.

We’ll be watching closely to see if the success experienced in Helena can be duplicated in Blytheville. We’re betting that it will be.

The winning application included more than 60 personal letters of support from parents, community leaders, and business partners, along with $50,000 in start-up funding for 2010. Blytheville’s community coalition also committed to raising at least $50,000 each successive year.

More than 60 individuals attended a meeting at the Donald W. Reynolds Community Services Center earlier. A number made personal appeals for KIPP to choose Pine Bluff, including Trudy Redus, wife of Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr., who stated supporters will do “whatever it takes.”

Dr. Virginia Hudson “Ginny” Blankenship, a Pine Bluff native, research and fiscal policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in Little Rock and the leader of the local coalition which totaled some 150, gave a passionate endorsement for Pine Bluff.

KIPP plans on operating 12 schools in three Delta towns within a decade, including the three in Helena-West Helena and the one it will open in Blytheville. If you are interested in dollars and cents, drive down Cherry Street in downtown Helena and the only new buildings carry the KIPP logo.

Blytheville went out of its way to demonstrate repeatedly to KIPP’s board that the once divided and decaying Northeast Arkansas city has learned a valuable lesson in blacks and whites working together for the benefit of the whole community.

Mississippi County Economic Development and the Great River Economic Development Foundation sold an economic development sales tax that helped generate thousands of new jobs.

Arkansas Senate Education Committee Vice Chairman Steve Bryles has been a vocal supporter. More than once he has pointed to local public schools with falling enrollment, noting 94 percent of KIPP Delta College Prep’s seventh-graders scored proficient or advanced on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam in math, compared to 52 percent of Blytheville’s public school students and a 70 percent statewide average.

Since KIPP wants to open two more schools in 2011, Pine Bluff will have another opportunity to attract a charter school where more than 90 percent of the typical students are minorities, and more than 80 percent are growing up in poverty.The free-enrollment schools have been cited for narrowing the achievement gap in public education, with 85 percent of KIPP alumni having gone on to college.

“Our coalition still intends to do whatever it takes to make Pine Bluff KIPP’s next expansion site in 2011, and that work begins today,” Blankenship wrote Wednesday on her blog. “Pine Bluff’s students have already waited long enough.”

The whole city should be grateful to Blankenship, Redus and everyone else who worked hard to bring the school to Pine Bluff. Their commitment will be critical to making it happen in 2011.

. . .

Here’s what it feels like to win:

Would your kids say this about their own schools?

Time to panic


In the heat of other competitions, I forgot to register (and practice) for this year’s Puzzle Day, to be held at the Clinton School of Public Service tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. I refuse to go down in flames twice this week.

It’s now 11:36 p.m. But never too late for bribery.

Happy Friday, y’all.

Update 8/30/09: Epic fail. Could not even bribe judges for a t-shirt door prize. Would have probably helped my odds if I had done some kind of puzzle since 2006. (I got addicted to sudoku while finishing my dissertation; it was the only way to shift gears in my brain and prevent me from editing chapter 4 in my sleep. I know.)

But not all entertainment was lost: After dragging poor husband to a five-and-a-half-hour* nerd contest, I got up to go to the restroom midway through. . .and guess which Blankenship got cornered by a reporter this time?

“Begins with p: Puzzle day tests word, number skills” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 8/30/09

Drew Blankenship arrived with his wife to compete. She was doing Sudoko, and he was trying his hand at crosswords. “I like the appeal of crosswords, because I like words and I like to read,” Blankenship said.

Isn’t he the cutest?! KATV also ran a very serious shot of dear husband on the 10 o’clock news. I will pay good money if anyone can send me the video.

He is so going to kill me in my sleep tonight.

*BTW, dear husband, if you still think this makes up for dragging me to hundreds of hours of football games, you are 7-Across: s-o; 2-Down: w-r-o-n-g. Don’t make me show you the math.

Not so fun this time.

Time to regroup, PB.

“KIPP chooses Blytheville, Pine Bluff still in running for 2011”The Pine Bluff Commercial, August 27, 2009

The Knowledge Is Power Program announced Wednesday that it has chosen Blytheville over Pine Bluff and West Memphis to locate a new charter school. Scott Shirey, director of the KIPP Delta Preparatory School in Helena, said Pine Bluff remains a “strong contender for a school opening in 2011” even though it was not chosen for KIPP’s second school in Arkansas.

“We were enthused by the reception we received in Pine Bluff and we feel positive about being able to bring the program to them in 2011,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work with the community this year to strengthen the application.”

Blytheville was chosen after a competitive process in which applicants had to demonstrate community support, parental demand, financial commitments and suitable facilities. The Department of Education still must approve KIPP’s charter application for the school. The Blytheville public charter school will start with a class of fifth-graders in 2010 and add a grade each year, eventually serving about 320 students in grades five through eight. It will be led by Maisie Wright.

Wright and Shirey attended a meeting last week organized by a local coalition hoping to bring the school to Pine Bluff. Similar meetings were held in Blytheville and West Memphis.

‘This is not over’

Pine Bluff native Dr. Ginny Blankenship, research and fiscal policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in Little Rock, started the coalition. She and other KIPP advocates for Pine Bluff were disappointed Wednesday but remained optimistic.

“This is not over,” Blankenship said. “We still have a chance to make something great happen in the next couple years.”

She also posted the news on her Web site,, and congratulated Blytheville for its successful campaign. Blankenship said the coalition for Pine Bluff consisted of more than 150 people of various backgrounds including local business leaders, city officials such as Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. and educators. It was formed “just six short weeks ago” when KIPP issued a request for proposals.

“Our coalition still intends to do whatever it takes to make Pine Bluff KIPP’s next expansion site in 2011, and that work begins today,” Blankenship said.

Asked how Pine Bluff could improve on its application, which Shirey iterated was “strong,” he said organizers should continue to expand the coalition and work to secure funding.

Pine Bluff Cable Television announced last week that it would donate $5,000 a year for five years to a local KIPP school.

Facilities available

“Pine Bluff had some really good facility options on the list,” Shirey said. “The facility was not a major concern. We’re confident we can work that out in the next year.”

Joy Blankenship, Dr. Blankenship’s mother-in-law and executive director of Pine Bluff Downtown Development Inc., said KIPP looked at a former Kroger store at 304 S. Chestnut St. as a possibility for the school and the old Greyhound station at 221 W. Fourth Ave. for a possible gymnasium. Both properties are owned by former Pine Bluff resident and real estate developer Elvin W. Moon.

Shirey said Blytheville’s application included more than 60 personal letters of support from parents, community leaders and business partners, along with $50,000 in start-up funding. Their coalition committed to raising at least the same amount in following years.

Key supporters there included KIPP advocate and state Senate Education Committee vice-chairman, Sen. Steve Bryles, D-Blytheville, several business and economic development entities and companies like Nucor Steel Arkansas, Aviation Repair Technology, First National Bank and Southern Bancorp.

“Really it came down to money,” Joy Blankenship said. “We’ll have to start fundraising if we want it here.”

A learning experience

Now that the community is more aware of what KIPP is, she said she thinks getting the business community’s support here will be easier in the next round. “We learned some things from it, too,” she said.

George Talbot Sr. of Talbot Capital Management Inc., another KIPP advocate, agreed. “We’ve done some work and we see what it takes to get it so I think the next go around we can really pull together a stronger proposal,” he said, adding, “I’m just happy that KIPP is interested in expanding in Arkansas.”

Shirey said while Wright was chosen by KIPP to lead the new school, the program also looks for input and support from communities to help “bring in outside talent.” He said principals at future schools — KIPP wants to open two more in 2011 — must complete a year-long Fisher Fellowship principal training program, as Wright did.

“It’s a shared responsibility,” Shirey said. “The more the community can help network and introduce great educators to KIPP, the better chance we’ll have.”

KIPP plans to grow to 12 charter schools in four communities by 2019. Shirey said the focus will remain “primarily in the Delta.” “We’ll probably open it up a little bit wider to let more communities in the Delta have the opportunity (to apply),” he said.

. . .

“Blytheville wins KIPP bid for next charter site”The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 27, 2009

A nationally known charter-school network hopes to expand in the Arkansas Delta by opening a new branch in Blytheville in 2010. The impoverished Mississippi County town beat out competing bids from Pine Bluff and West Memphis for the proposed new KIPP school. KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program, currently has an elementary, middle and high school in Helena-West Helena.

Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, said Wednesday that the combination of community and financial support for KIPP in Blytheville made the difference. Blytheville’s application included 60 personalized letters from parents, businessmen and community leaders and $50,000 in startup funding. There is also vacant retail space in Blytheville’s downtown that seems ideal for a new school, Shirey said.

“Pine Bluff and West Memphis are two great communi-ties that are both deserving of a KIPP school,” Shirey said. “Blytheville just showed a different level of commitment.”

Charter schools are public schools that sign operating agreements, or charters, with the state. The Arkansas Board of Education will hold hearings on new charter applicants in November. By Monday KIPP must submit a formal application outlining its plan for Blytheville.

The three-city competition for the next proposed KIPP school was unique in Arkansas, said Mary Ann Brown, the Arkansas Department of Education’s charter-school program director. Typically, charter-school proposals in Arkansas have developed as local endeavors within specific communities. “This is unchartered territory, so to speak,” Brown said.

KIPP’s national track record of successfully reaching at-risk youths makes it appealing to Delta community leaders, said Jack Poff, a leader of West Memphis’ KIPP drive.

Nationwide, KIPP serves 20,000 students at 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

“So many of these charters are startups that who knows how they’ll perform,” Poff said. “KIPP is a well-known product, and they’re producing results. They have the ability to go into blighted areas and produce the kind of results that are necessary to move areas forward.”

KIPP will have its work cut out for it in Blytheville. Six of seven Blytheville schools are on the state’s list of schools in need of improvement due to falling short of federally mandated achievement standards. The only school not on the improvement list is a district-run charter school targeting at-risk youths. The majority of the district’s students are black and come from low-income families.

Richard Atwill, Blytheville’s superintendent, did not return a call or e-mail for comment Wednesday.

KIPP prides itself on helping historically underperforming students. At its three charter schools in Helena-West Helena, where 86 percent of students come from low-income families and 95 percent are black, KIPP students are exceeding state averages on standardized tests in a number of grades. For example, 94 percent of KIPP’s seventh-graders in Helena-West Helena scored at proficient or advanced levels on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam in math earlier this year. That compares with 52 percent proficient or advanced in Blytheville and 70 percent statewide.

Fifth-grade scores in math and literacy were both below the state average this year in KIPP’s Helena-West Helena school, however. Shirey said that’s because the students hadn’t been enrolled in the program long enough. He said the pupil’s test scores should rise as they progress toward high school.

Besides a reputation for strong community support and in-school discipline, longer school days are one of KIPP’s hallmarks. Students are in school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and also attend special class sessions every other Saturday. KIPP also holds three weeks of mandatory summer school each year.

The new KIPP school in Blytheville would be led by Maisie Wright, a KIPP math and science teacher from Helena-West Helena who began her career in education as a Teach for America Corps member. The Blytheville plan calls for starting with a class of fifth-graders next fall, and then adding a grade each year up through the eighth grade. As they did in Helena-West Helena, Shirey would like to open elementary and high schools in Blytheville.

The new KIPP school would be an open-enrollment charter school. These schools are operated by nonprofit organizations instead of traditional school districts. Charter schools operate under the terms of a five-year renewable contract with the state board. The state’s charter schools are exempt from some of the rules that govern traditional schools, so they have more flexibility to innovate. In return, they are held more accountable for student achievement. The schools are tuition-free and open to all students. If there are more applicants than available slots, as there are in Helena-West Helena, students are chosen randomly via a lottery.

KIPP ultimately wants to open 12 schools in four Arkansas Delta communities by 2019. The plan is to open two more KIPP schools in 2011.

Joy Blankenship, a leader of Pine Bluff’s effort to woo KIPP, said her city will try to attract KIPP again then. She said the city needs to start planning earlier, build up more grass-roots support and raise more startup money. Their unsuccessful drive this year raised interest in KIPP, Blankenship said, which should make it easier to build up support next year. “It’s like taking a test,” she said. “If you don’t do well the first time, you learn for the next time how to prepare.”

With 12 schools in four communities, Shirey estimates KIPP will have about 3,600 students. That should add up to about 15 percent of the Delta’s low-income student population. Shirey hopes that will mark a “tipping point” to force traditional public schools in the Delta to enact educational changes that raise student achievement. “When schools compete, students and parents win,” Shirey said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Some bittersweet news to report: Pine Bluff has lost KIPP Delta’s next public school to Blytheville, home of Senate Education Committee vice-chairman Steve Bryles, who has been a tireless advocate for KIPP and all of Arkansas’s students for at least ten years. We send our sincere thanks to the good Senator for his hard work and congratulations to the city of Blytheville, its FABULOUS new school leader Maisie Wright, and all of its future KIPPsters for the incredible educational adventure they are about to embark upon!

Pine Bluff did not go down without a fight — and the battle is not over yet. Over 150 people of all backgrounds began banding together when the request for proposals was issued just six short weeks ago, recognizing what KIPP has done to help the most disadvantaged students in West Helena and around the nation and what KIPP could do in our hometown. My eternal thanks to all of you who stepped up and shouted “YES!” when it would have been very easy to say “why bother?”

Our coalition still intends to do whatever it takes to make Pine Bluff KIPP’s next expansion site in 2011, and that work begins today. I hope you will all join me and our coalition in continuing this effort for as long as it takes, however much it takes. Pine Bluff’s students have already waited long enough.

We must also do whatever it takes to ensure educational excellence for all of our public schools and students in Pine Bluff and across the Delta. They need not only our financial support but also our time, our listening, our tutoring, our mentoring; they need books and computers, musical instruments and art supplies; they need after-school and summer programs to keep students engaged in learning long after the school doors are closed. There are many simple things that can and must be done by churches, businesses, non-profits, elected officials, colleges, social and professional organizations. It is not impossible to transform a whole community.

Please don’t give up on any of these students. Our future won’t forgive us.

. . .

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

—Margaret Mead

. . .

A happy ending for two of my Pine Bluff High School classmates:

“Torii Hunter’s Personal Miracle: A Tough Childhood, a Father’s Confession and a Secret Brother Who Went to West Point”The Wall Street Journal (with video), 8/26/09