According to preliminary results released by the Arkansas Department of Education, those third through six-grade students participating in the pilot of the Helena-West Helena School District (HWHSD) “Academy of Excellence” program achieved scores on the English portion of the ACT Aspire – the standard statewide measure of academic achievement – that outpaced both the national and state averages, as well as those of nearly every other school district – traditional or charter – in Phillips County. Rates of proficiency in English were 75 percent or higher across grades 3-6, including a 90.9 percent proficiency score in grade 6. Scores in the math portion were slightly below the national and state averages, but on average also exceeded those of every school district in the county.

According to preliminary results released by the Arkansas Department of Education, those third through six-grade students participating in the pilot of the Helena-West Helena School District (HWHSD) “Academy of Excellence” program achieved scores on the English portion of the ACT Aspire – the standard statewide measure of academic achievement – that outpaced both the national and state averages, as well as those of nearly every other school district – traditional or charter – in Phillips County. Rates of proficiency in English were 75 percent or higher across grades 3-6, including a 90.9 percent proficiency score in grade 6. Scores in the math portion were slightly below the national and state averages, but on average also exceeded those of every school district in the county.

“Our mission in the Helena-West Helena School District is to produce graduates who are fully prepared for life after school as productive, responsible and caring citizens,” said HWHSD Superintendent John Hoy. “We are committed to doing everything possible to see that the children we serve reach their full potential. It was that commitment which inspired us to innovate by creating the Academy program.”

The “Academy of Excellence” (or “Academy” program for short) is a college preparatory program designed to offer students a more rigorous and rich educational experience. While Academy participants follow the same statewide educational standards as other students, their education also includes a minimum of four field-trips (compared to a minimum of two for non-Academy participants) and an emphasis on project-based learning aligned with science and social studies standards. In addition, significant parental involvement is required, including a minimum of six mandatory sit-down parent-child-teacher conferences each year (as compared to the two required by the district for all students). The goal of the program – which was offered last year in one classroom per grade K-6 – is to ensure that students are fully prepared to be enrolled in a Pre-AP/AP (Advanced Placement) sequence by the time they reach the 7th grade.

“The enrollment application makes clear that there is an expectation of a serious commitment on behalf of not only the students, but also the parents,” said Jewel Hamilton, Principal of JF Wahl Elementary where the Academy pilot took place last school year. “Rigorous instruction plus complete parental involvement is a powerful combination.”

“The Academy program was designed to provide an option within our school district for those parents who want an enhanced college-prep curriculum for their children,” said Hoy. “We had been losing students to schools that touted those kinds of programs and we realized it was something we could absolutely offer ourselves.”

In preparation for developing the program, school and district leaders visited schools that had high achievement including the local KIPP Delta Elementary Literacy Academy.

Students in the program stand out not only academically, but also in their dress: While the school uniform for non-Academy students includes either a navy blue or red polo shirt, Academy participants wear light blue polo shirts instead. This distinct uniform not only instills pride in Academy participants, but also stokes the curiosity of non-Academy students.

“I am delighted when non-Academy students see the Academy uniforms or hear about the field trips and ask how they can get in on the Academy program,” said Hamilton. “It’s vital that students develop a sincere desire in themselves to be a part of the program. It must be a voluntary commitment about which they are excited. That’s when it really works.”

Fortunately, excitement is not in short supply among students in the Academy program.

“I liked the Academy and wanted to keep going,” said Landyn Denson who participated in the Academy program as a second grader last year. “In the regular classes, we didn’t do as much as we do in the Academy. Sometimes in a regular class, you didn’t get homework, but in the Academy you get it all the time.”

“I could see why my daughter wanted to be in the Academy,” said Landyn’s mother Cheryl. “The learning environment is structured such that the more my daughter learned, the more she wanted to learn... which is quite extraordinary. Beyond that, as a parent, I appreciated that the teacher was very involved, had an open door policy, and the lines of communication were always open.”

Other parents / guardians of Academy participants echoed that enthusiasm.

“The experience for my granddaughter was great,” said Willie Jackson. “My granddaughter loves learning. She really enjoyed the hands-on nature of the class, but more important, she was really challenged by her teacher in the Academy to develop her critical thinking abilities. That was very important to me and I think she realizes how this will help her realize her dream of becoming a doctor.”

“My grandson Malachi was in the third grade last year and he was very excited about being in the Academy,” said Cassandra Ward. “They did a great job keeping parents involved, including sending home newsletters every week telling us exactly what the children were going to be studying in the coming week in each subject area. But probably the thing that stood out to me the most was when I asked my grandson every day how school was, he would consistently say things like ‘awesome, ‘ ‘amazing’, and ‘fabulous.’ He seemed to be developing a love of learning that I hope stays with him throughout his life.”

 

“The significance of these results is that you can get a top quality, college-preparatory education in Helena, Arkansas and you can get it at the Helena-West Helena School District,” said H-WHSD School Board President Andrew Bagley. “As both a parent in this district and a policymaker, I am thrilled with this program. The numbers leave no doubt that the Helena-West Helena School District is doing the best job with those students and families that are seeking this kind of educational experience.”

“My three children decided to try the KIPP Delta Charter school last year, but this year all three are back at the Helena-West Helena School District,” said parent April Casey. “Each system has its own unique character. What my children like about the Helena-West Helena School District is the wider array of extracurricular experiences which gives them a more well-rounded education and helps with their social development. We tried KIPP because we also wanted the strong academics they were known for offering. Now that the Academy program is here, I feel we can get the best of both worlds at the Helena-West Helena School District, which is really great for myself and my children.”

Critics of the program have suggested that the program’s superlative results are the result of “cherry picking” the best students from the school district for the program.

“We absolutely understand that concern but it is simply not the case,” said Hamilton. “The Academy program is open to all students regardless of past academic performance. As with the local charter school, parents must opt to enroll their child in the Academy and make a commitment to support their child throughout the year. That is all.”

Given the positive results, the Academy pilot has been expanded from one class per grade to two classes per grade for the current academic year.

“Our vision is to eventually be able to offer the Academy program to all students for whom the program is right for them and their families,” concluded Hamilton.

 

About ACT Aspire (www.discoveractaspire.org):

 

The product of the same organization that developed and administers the ACT college readiness exam, ACT Aspire is a standards-based system of assessments to monitor progress toward college and career readiness from grade 3 through early high school, anchored to the scoring system of the ACT.

The assessments cover English and Math at the younger grades and add Reading, Writing, and Science in later grades. The Arkansas State Board of Education adopted the ACT Aspire summative assessment for use starting in the 2015-16 school year as the means of assessing the academic growth of all Arkansas public school students in grades 3-10.

 

About the Helena-West Helena School District [www.hwhschools.org]

 

The Helena-West Helena School District (HWHSD) is a Pre-K through 12th grade public school system centered in Helena-West Helena, whose mission is to produce graduates who are fully prepared for life after school as productive, responsible and caring citizens. Although primarily a traditional public school, H-WHSD was granted by the State Board of Education in 2016 several of the same waivers from state regulations granted to charter schools in order to foster innovation.