Dr. Rory Brown Sipp: A Champion of Change for Children

October 27, 2021

“If you have support and people believing in you, you can do anything,” says Rory Sipp, Senior Vice President of Acelero Learning, the largest provider of Head Start services in Nevada. He saw how true this was after an anxious mom brought her little girl to one of his centers. “The child was in a wheelchair,” Sipp recalls, “and mom had never let the girl out of her sight. Yet I managed to ease some of her deep concerns about parting with her child for an extended span of time. Then when the mom was leaving the building, I told her, ‘You can take this wheelchair with you. We will not be using this wheelchair because I am going to give your little one all the OT and PT support she needs.’ By the time that little girl left our program, she was able to walk with assistive devices from her mother’s arms to the classroom. And after several years, she was able to walk without any assistive devices at all.”

Sipp was determined to take that small girl from a bad place to a good place because he knows what it’s like to struggle as he did while growing up in Alabama. And he knows that Head Start can help, as it did when his mom and dad divorced 43 years ago. “The income went out of the household,” he says, “so my mom enrolled me in the local Birmingham Head Start.” Sipp would do the same thing when he was a 17-year-old college student and had his own 10-month-old son. “My mom and my grandma who were in the house with me passed away in a span of a few months, so I had to quit school and take on a full-time job. I needed child care and I didn’t know where to turn until a friend who worked with Head Start reminded me about the program.”

Head Start gave Sipp’s son a good start in life, and it also launched Sipp in his career. “They encouraged me to join a policy council that helped review decisions about the program,” he recalls. “It helped me find my voice after all the tragedies I’d been through—losing my mom, losing my grandma, even living in my car at one point. So, I gave my voice to Head Start via the policy council and then they started reminding me about job opportunities. Dr. Calvin E. Moore, Jr., my longtime mentor and now my best friend, gave me my first job as a teacher’s assistant.” And in years to come, Sipp would go on to become a trainer, administrator and content area expert focused on disabilities and mental health. While working in various Head Start programs, he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in special education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, along with a certification in applied behavior analysis.

When Sipp moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, where he still lives, the first thing he did was go to the local Head Start and fill out an application. They hired him as a center director, and he flourished as he moved up the ranks to his current position as Acelero’s Senior VP. He now provides support to over 6,000 children and close to 1,500 staff members. “I’m the leader of one of the largest Head Start programs in the country,” he says, “and my success is testament to the fact that Head Start works.”

Sipp is also determined to make it work for other young learners, he explains, because “my job is to serve every single child, regardless of color, culture or background. So, my staff and I are committed to blowing up the achievement gap through innovation. We have our own family engagement tool. We have our own curriculum, and we have rigorous systems that drive us to the next level of what’s possible for children.”

Acelero Learning also makes extensive use of data to inform learning. “We collect child assessment data, parent engagement data and data on how teachers are interacting with children,” Sipp explains. “We need to determine where we should open up a school, what needs a community has and whether what we’re doing fulfills our goal to build a better future for children and families. We need to know how and where to teach to get the best results because Head Start dollars are precious.”

So are the lives Sipp serves, especially those of children with special needs. “ECE special ed is part of my background,” he says, “and it’s still my passion. I believe special needs kids are a group people sometimes don’t know a lot about, and those children tend to be set apart. Most people don’t want to spend a lot of time with them, but those are precisely the children I tend to gravitate toward most. The question I ask is what can this little one do because that is the foundation to teach them other skills needed to be successful not only in the classroom, but in life.” And Sipp’s own life has raised his commitment to support those who are different. Both his cousin and his nephew are on the autism spectrum, he explains. “So now it’s a personal thing for me.”

He also feels a strong connection to small boys of color, who are too often misdiagnosed as having special needs. “I’m from the deep South,” he explains, “and there’s a lot of work to be done in correctly assessing people of color, especially little boys. Sometimes when you see overreporting of children of color it’s because people don’t understand who they are. You need to understand more than what you see on the outside. You also need to know the background and culture that children bring to an early childhood classroom. If you don’t know those things about children, you can’t teach them. So, one of the requirements of Head Start is that we staff our programs with people who reflect that community of families and children who they serve.”

Another requirement for staff is that they earn their Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. “The CDA®,” he says, “is the baseline for a lot of our positions, especially our Early Head Start positions. After staff members earn their CDA, we encourage them to go on for their associate degree and higher,” as Sipp himself has done. “When I left college at 17, Head Start gave me the funding and release time to go to the local community college and earn my CDA. It was the first credential I ever earned, and I’m still proud of getting it though I completed my doctoral studies in 2010.”

He has inspired other staff members to use the CDA as a building block for advancement. And he’s especially proud of one staff member who started out as an assistant teacher with a CDA. “She had made up her mind that she would never step foot in a classroom after graduating high school,” Sipp recalls, “but I worked closely with her and coached her along the way. Not only did she earn her AA, but she also got her BA. Then she moved all the way through the organization to become one of the inclusion specialists at Acelero Learning. Now she’s one of our shining stars as an employee.”

Skilled and committed staff members like her helped Acelero children make significant gains despite the pandemic. According to a study by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, three- and four-year-old Acelero students made significant gains in the domains of print knowledge and numeracy during the pandemic. Infants and toddlers made significant gains in developing language. And the reason for this striking success, Sipp explains “is that we are committed to delivering high-quality experiences and education to children, whatever the circumstances might be.”

So Acelero never stopped moving during the pandemic, Sipp says. “I am so proud of the work we did despite COVID: sending meals out to our families, providing diapers, getting technology out to families so they could put their children on virtual platforms. We have achieved everything provided for by our Head Start dollars.” And Acelero also made innovations so children could keep on learning, Sipp explains. “At first, we tried to replicate the classroom experience as much as we could, but after a couple of months, we redesigned our program to focus more on the individual child and individual family. We listened carefully to what family members wanted and provided them with specific resources for their specific child.”

Sipp values the viewpoints of parents though most of them are poor and even homeless. “I was once sleeping in my car, so I’ve learned to be humble,” he says. “Sure, when I first entered this work, I applied what we did with parents from a deficit perspective. As an educator you tend to approach parents with the mindset that you’re poor, so let me help you, let me fix you. But over time, I realized that didn’t help my parents. So now I believe that when parents enroll their child in our program we’re partners. We have the same hopes and dreams for a child, so let’s work together to do what’s best for the child.”

This approach reflects his creed: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And it’s one of the life lessons he passes on in his book A Psalm to My Sons. “It’s a self-help guide that puts together my life lessons,” he says. “It describes losing my mom and grandma, then parenting at an early age. It talks about spirituality and my conviction that we are all here for a reason. It also explores my conviction that your job should be about your passion, so you never feel like you’re working a day in your life,” he explains. And most of all, the book conveys Sipp’s wish to help young men avoid some of the roadblocks he faced as he went from a bad place to the good place where he is now.

It was clear Sipp had come out ahead in 2012 when he was honored by President Barack Obama’s administration as a White House “Champion of Change” for his service to the most vulnerable citizens of our nation. “My accomplishments show that you can come from the deep South, face poverty and challenges, and still grow up to succeed. Even if people limit your options, you can do whatever you want so long as you apply yourself in the right way,” he says.

And at Acelero Learning, Sipp is determined to help every young child also do whatever they want when they grow up. This is not just his job. It’s his passion, as he explains. “I do this work because I love it, and I want to make a major impact on children, families and staff.”

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