For the first time this year we gathered together representatives from each of our five Forward Communities – Crossett, Independence County, Little Rock, Marianna, Pea Ridge and Springdale. From March 30-31, spokespeople from community chambers of commerce, school districts, local employers and Forward Arkansas-partnering educational organizations gathered together in Batesville for the first Forward Thinking Conference, and the agenda was packed full of opportunities to “learn, share and plan.”

The event’s keynote speaker, Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart and former first executive director for education with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, shared with us the importance of positioning ourselves for the global economy, acknowledging that our students will soon have to master topics extending past traditional learning into artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet of Things. It’s important that we all begin to start thinking about this sooner rather than later, positioning our learning modules to be able to adapt to future formats.

We had the exciting opportunity to tour the facilities at Bad Boy Mowers, a multi-million dollar homegrown Arkansas entrepreneurial success story, and we also heard stories from students Brayden Eckerd and Britton Harmon, two participants in Southside High School’s charter program. Eckerd and Harmon are earning value-added diplomas from the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville that provide technical certification and/or college credit while they complete their high school courses. Eckerd, a robotic welder in Bad Boy’s fab shop, is now making more money than anyone in his family has ever made, and just purchased his first house at age 19.

It was refreshing and encouraging to hear communities representatives talk amongst themselves, learning from the best practices of others and taking home relevant suggestions to implement at their own schools for the benefit of their students. Our social media engagement during the conference was off the charts, signaling that these types of conversations and resources are extremely valuable in today’s sometimes challenging education environment.

We can’t wait to see how these communities progress, and are working hard to ensure they keep in touch to continue facilitating great discussions that lead to education improvement!