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A Difference in the Delta
How do you start a profile of Scott Shirey, the founder and force behind the Delta College Prep charter school in the historic ruins of Helena, a once-hopping river town?
You could start with Shirey the teacher. Picture him in his small classroom of 11th-graders, their desks arranged in a loose circle, their attention on the day’s assignment, an interpretive look at Arc of Justice, a book about a civil-rights trial in 1920s Detroit by Kevin Boyle.
Delta College Prep is a member of the successful Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter system. The 11th-graders are on schedule to becoming the school’s first graduating class. Twelve of the 13 students in Shirey’s classroom are black, one is white, an only slightly skewed representation of the demographic breakdown of this Phillips County seat. Then there is Shirey, the fish-out-of-water instructor, the 6-foot-3-inch white guy in the suit, 32 years old with the face of a choir boy. He was born in Worcester, Mass., naht fah from Bah-stawn, raised in Holden, Mass., and came of age in North Andover, Mass. He then headed farther north to Colby College, a private liberal arts school in Waterville, Maine, that’s ranked by the Forbeses and Kiplingers as one of the nation’s best. Despite a top-notch education, he probably couldn’t have found Helena on the map before he moved here seven years ago.
Like a law professor, Shirey peppers his students with questions. There’s no doubt they’ve all read the material. The problem is that some students have read ahead and, since today’s lesson doesn’t extend to the end of the book, there’s a danger that somebody might give away the ending.
The debate goes on, heats up. You can almost see the minds at work.
That’s one way to start the profile. The whole To Sir, With Love business in reverse. But that’s too cliché, the inspiring teacher in his classroom.
How about this? There’s Shirey the builder. He wears a hard hat at a construction site near Helena’s downtown, watching the rise of the school gymnasium. It is the first new construction in the immediate area since, well, since the last project by Delta College Prep. Back then, Shirey & Co., with money and moral support from Southern Financial Bancorp, oversaw the construction of a new middle school along Cherry Street — the main drag known for its proximity to the Mississippi River, its musical fame as ground zero for the annual blues festival and its boarded-up buildings.
The new $3-million gym will be about 20,000 square feet and is scheduled to open this month, weather and Murphy’s Law permitting. It will double as an assembly hall for proms and graduations and could provide space for the public, too.
”When we started this project, I had two non-negotiables,” Shirey says, “hardwood floors and brick exterior. It’s important for kids to see examples of quality. I don’t buy the argument that you can’t put quality here.”
All told, Delta Prep owns about six acres of downtown Helena, including an open field near the gym that Shirey sees as a future athletic field. Some day.
“Some of this is done on faith,” he says. “A lot of it is done on faith.”
So, Shirey the builder?
Nah. Too confining. Especially for a man who backed into the business part of this thing, a man whose singular dream is to chuck all the blueprints and “just teach history, nothing but history.”
How, then, about this? There’s Shirey the father figure. He’s walking from the new gym to his office. It’s a little past 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in January. On a typical day, school wouldn’t be out for another couple hours — full days and occasional weekends being one of the secrets to KIPP’s success. But today is Parent-Teacher Report Card Day, when a student’s progress is chewed over by mom, dad and instructor. At length. The three-hour get-together starts at 4 p.m., so the kids are out “early.”
Shirey spies a student walking with his shirttail out. The 11th grader has been a student of his for years, and he remains a frustration.
“He’s one of those kids who cares,” says Shirey, “but doesn’t want anybody to think he cares.”
So he acts like a teenage boy. Given a research assignment, the young man mailed it in, handing over a paper that Shirey deciphered as the work of Wikipedia. Yet the kid is smart enough to stand before the class and recite the first and last names of every U.S. president in chronological order. Which he did. Effortlessly.
When the student first arrived at Delta Prep as a fifth-grader, his scores on standardized tests were below the 50th percentile. College is now in his future — if he buckles down.
As Shirey walks along, a woman behind the wheel of an SUV slows and rolls down the window to chat. Her daughter, the KIPP student, sits in back. Mom sounds concerned, involved. Not all parents buy in. When Shirey and three other teachers were starting the school, selling parents on the concept was often harder than selling the kids.
He remembers sitting in the living room of a potential student, a young girl, when her father said that he didn’t see the need for his daughter to change schools. Not when the public school she already attended offered the same grade. Wasn’t one school just as good as the next?
Somehow, Shirey rounded up 65 fifth-graders to open Delta College Prep in the fall of 2002. Some 365 students are now KIPP kids. Next year, for grades K-1 and 5-12, enrollment should top 500. By the fall of 2012, Delta College Prep will be K-12. And by then, as director of KIPP Delta, Shirey could have opened as many as 12 more KIPP schools in four more towns.
This is the rarest kind of news out of the Delta: good. For the results of Delta College Prep are astounding. In 2008, almost 90 percent of the eighth-graders scored proficient or advanced on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam in math, which compares to 23 percent of the students in the Helena-West Helena School District.
It seems like magic. Kids enroll in KIPP, and their scores go up. They start talking about college and taking the ACT. The magic? Commitment. Class days start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. School is in every other Saturday and three weeks over the summer. Parents, students and teachers sign a commitment contract. Visitors notice the discipline, uniforms and courtesy of the students. And the teachers tend toward young, fresh-from-college wanna-be world-changers.
According to Luke Van De Walle, the director (read principal) of the still-new high school, he has teachers from Illinois, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Nebraska, New Jersey, Washington state and, yes, Arkansas.
In 2002, Van De Walle was already in Helena, teaching at the public middle school through the Teach for America program, when he met Shirey at a Taco Bell.
“There had been kind of a buzz about the KIPP school,” says Van De Walle, 28. “I wanted to see it. I was impressed. I turned my classroom into a KIPP classroom even though I wasn’t here. I copied what I saw working on Cherry Street.”
As for the tall, lanky 25-year-old running the place at the time, Van De Walle says, “I was 21 at the time, so Scott still seemed older. But I do remember thinking how impressive it was that someone under 30 could be doing something with so much potential.”
So he signed on. Seven years later, Van De Walle is settled here, married, with three kids and a This Old House of a historic home that he’s restoring.
But, again, you flirt with cliché when you start off with the father-figure business. For which great principal or school leader isn’t?
Let’s try this instead. There’s Shirey the Helena homeboy. The man from Massachusetts now owns a house in town. He married a local girl, Angela, a loan officer, and now parents a daughter in the third grade. (Not quite KIPP age.) They also have a dog, an Australian Shepherd-Collie mix named Keys. Her coat is black and white, like the keys on a piano.
“Get back. Get back. Get back.” Shirey has opened the door to his house and faces his biggest challenge of the day — corralling the hyper-energetic Keys for a walk up nearby Graveyard Hill, a Civil War site.
“I don’t usually do this,” he says.
What? Give Keys a walk?
“No. Come home in the middle of the day.”
But it’s good for the story, he’s told. We’ll walk and he can provide details of his migration to the Delta.
It goes something like this: After graduating from Colby College, Shirey applied to the KIPP Foundation. He wanted to live in the Delta, the better to sate his interest in black history. He’d train as a Teach For America member in Baton Rouge, then, he thought, settle into a KIPP school there.
Didn’t happen. Shirey was ready. KIPP was ready. Baton Rouge wasn’t. Not all cities welcome school competition, or even tolerate it.
Meanwhile, some members of Arkansas’ Department of Education had become intrigued by KIPP. They’d seen a bit on CBS’ 60 Minutes about its success in Houston. Janinne Riggs of the education department called some folks in Helena who were looking to jump-start their city. A meeting here, a visit there, and the Helena folks were in.
After committing to a KIPP school for the city, local leaders like Cathy and Ernest Cunningham and then-Mayor Robert Miller zeroed in on getting Shirey to commit to Helena-West Helena.
“He came to Helena and we escorted him around town,” Cathy Cunningham writes in an e-mail. “[We] showed him buildings which were available (the City offered the Depot for 10 years at $1 per year at Mayor Miller’s request). We invited people for dinner in our home to meet him (he said our chili was what sold him). We also had a large meeting at City Hall where he presented himself and the program. He was emotional, as you may have experienced, when he talked about his desire to start this school. We were all sold on him and his passion immediately and hoped he felt the same about us.
“I don’t remember if he told us before he left, or in the next day or two, but we were soon putting all the plans together to open in July 2002.”
Sold because of the chili? There are certainly worse motivations for a relocation. But why has he stayed? Surely there have been offers, not to mention the pull toward home way up East.
“A friend from the Northeast was asking me, ‘Why Helena? Why Helena?’” Shirey says. “And I told her that I had moved to North Andover from Holden when I was in sixth grade. Holden was a small town. When she heard I was from Holden, she understood. I was teased in my new environment [in North Andover]. I’ll always have a soft spot for kids who are picked on. I guess that’s the pain that drives me. I asked Luke once, ‘What’s the pain that drives you?’ And I think it was something similar. He grew up in a small town in Illinois and when he went to college at Purdue, he probably experienced some teasing and low expectations because of where he was from.”
From atop Graveyard Hill, we can see Van De Walle’s house, that historic beauty under restoration. There are lots of historic beauties in Helena that need restoring. Lots of possibilities.
Shirey nods toward Cherry Street. “Look at the potential,” says the man who doesn’t buy the argument that you can’t put quality here.
Alas, that’s not a proper start to a profile of Scott Shirey, either. Too serious. Nobody is driven all the time. That way lies burnout and a very dull boy. To start with, we must introduce Shirey the buddy to have a beer with. He’s in there, too, you know.
Running a half-hour late for dinner and a few cold ones at Oliver’s, a restaurant that’s beating the downtown odds, Shirey finally approaches, stops at the table and makes a display of reading his Blackberry. “Hey. Man. Where. You. At?” he reads aloud flatly, turning the awful techno-prose into a one-liner as he recites the e-mail from a dinner partner now looking at him from behind a half-empty bottle of Coors Light.
The brand is important. Like his dinner partner, Shirey is a Coors Light man — Coors Light in a bottle! — which is notable for a couple of reasons: (1) Despite some evidence to the contrary, a fella who’s developed a fierce loyalty to his suds is not just some fuddy-duddy who lives in the office, mainlining coffee to squeeze in that extra hour of workaholism, and (2) Shirey hails from the Nor’east, land of the micro-brews and a long history of hops that has bred generations of beer snobs. He’s not supposed to fancy a beer that prices at 11 bucks for an 18-pack at the corner gas station.
And it doesn’t end there.
He orders fried pickles and fried catfish and sounds disappointed that you can’t get the cole slaw fried, too. He discusses the merits of bottles over cans in one breath and the frustrations of inflexible education edicts in the next. He defends himself against the charge that he and the KIPPsters aren’t visible enough in the community, that they stick to their own, seem elitist. Baloney, he says. He’s heard that before. He provides examples of community involvement, of parades and clean ups. He could simply point to the economic impact of KIPP, of all the land the school has purchased and cleared, of that new gym and plans for an expanded campus.
He argues without raising his voice, between bites of fried pickles dipped in ranch dressing, between laughs and “how are ya’s” from other customers. As he loosens up, he never loosens his tie.
Lesson learned after spending a day with the director of Delta KIPP: He’s not pigeonhole-able enough to lend himself to a perfect, yep-that’s-Scott lead on a magazine profile. By the time you’ve played all the angles, by the time you’ve finally gotten started on figuring out this Yankee who’s changing the education game in the Arkansas Delta, which is the one game that must change if there is to be any real progress, you discover that the fried pickles are gone, that the Coors Lights are empty … and you’re at the end.