Throughout my career in education, I have seen the important role data plays in informing statewide educational policy. I have also seen firsthand how access to quality data can drive strategy and decision making, as well as improve teaching and learning outcomes at every level, including classrooms, where it can really make a difference for students.

Last month, ForwARd Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute for Chief Data Officers partnered to convene a diverse group of more than 100 people at our inaugural Data & Policy Symposium, where we discussed the importance of implementing a longitudinal data system to track educational outcomes throughout our state.

Topics of discussion included the importance of data as a determinant of policy, how data collaboratives are advancing in other states and how we might adopt similar initiatives in Arkansas.

The symposium’s keynote speaker, John Easton, a former director at the U.S. Department of Education and a national thought leader on this issue, inspired us with stories of how these insights from another city’s longitudinal data systems has benefited Chicago Public Schools and students. His research on the predictive power of 9th grade GPA as an indicator of future success was particularly insightful – since the implementation of tracking these GPAs, a culture shift occurred. The educators went from looking annually at a single test on two subjects to looking at an overall measure that considers multiple variables such as attendance, discipline, weekly exams, presentations, projects and assignments. Since then, student achievement has been improving across the board.  Student GPAs have improved regardless of race, income level, or neighborhood, just by communicating to educators in the system that these measures mattered. These are amazing results, which Arkansas can certainly learn from.

By the end of the Symposium, it was clear that there is a robust appetite for sharing data in Arkansas. There is also an understanding that development and implementation of a longitudinal data system is critically important to our ability to tracking the effectiveness of policies in our state.

At ForwARd, we are working to create a collaborative environment that fosters world-class academic research capabilities and capacity for data-sharing within state government. We believe this Symposium has helped lay the groundwork for and ForwARd strongly supports the expedited establishment of a longitudinal data system in the state of Arkansas.

Schools across Arkansas have taken an innovative approach to education by proactively partnering with businesses to better prepare students for the working world. Whether it is involving businesses in curriculum development, or exposing students to potential careers through field trips to company offices, schools have realized the importance of preparing their students for college, career and beyond.

A prime example of a successful partnership between a school and a business can be found at the Pea Ridge Manufacturing & Business Academy (PRMBA) in Northwest Arkansas – a ForwARd community. PRMBA is a conversion charter school, focused on cutting-edge career-technical education. Students from PRMBA have taken field trips to companies such as Tyson Foods, John Deere and Philips to learn real-world applications of their studies in marketing and logistics, plastic and metal fabrication, industrial technology and healthcare and nursing. This past year, PRMBA partnered with J.B. Hunt to employ two students from the marketing and logistics pathway who have remained employed there to this day. By combining classroom curriculum with real-world skills, students at PRMBA are presented with a well-rounded educational experience.

“PRMBA’s strength is its relationship with business partners in Northwest Arkansas,” said Charley Clark, director of PRMBA. “These relationships have allowed us to prepare graduates for an evolving workforce in a thriving economy. Our business partners have input on our curriculum, host classes for business trips, provide guest lecturers, and engage with our pathway instructors to make sure we are teaching content that will help our graduates whether they enter the workforce or attend college.”

This story is not an outlier. Strong relationships between local schools and businesses have demonstrated success in other ForwARd communities across the state:

  1. At the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale, a representative from Today’s Power trained students on software used to manage and monitor solar panels. The solar panels were installed on campus to power a small-produce farm, which will be part of an alternative energy class scheduled to begin this school year.
  2. The Cedar Ridge School District in Independence County has partnered with the FutureFuel Chemical Company to better align their curriculum with what companies are looking for in future employees. FutureFuel engineers spend their time working with faculty to develop relevant pre-engineering and engineering concept curriculum for Project Lead the Way Advanced Manufacturing courses and volunteer time to mentor students in the after-school robotics program.
  3. In the Crossett School District, Georgia Pacific has provided funding to boost literacy, increase the number of students interested in STEM and provide college scholarships to various schools in the community.
  4. The Crossroads Coalition has supported several EAST (Environmental and Spatial Technology) programs throughout Lee County. The programs are student-driven service projects where students develop teamwork skills and utilize advanced technology to solve complex issues.

As an organization, ForwARd is committed to continuing our work with these communities to cultivate relationships that bring new ideas and approaches to the integration of education and workforce development. I encourage our supporters to find out more information on our work to empower communities on the Where We Work page of our website.

A little less than a month into the school year, students, parents and teachers across the state are getting back into the swing of things. The same is true here at ForwARd Arkansas.

Last spring, we gathered a wide range of community stakeholders across the state in a series of ForwARd Together Conversations to inform the development of statewide policies to improve education outcomes for all students. After identifying three key themes from the conversations, the ForwARd Arkansas team has spent the summer building three Policy Collaboratives that have already begun to meet and formulate policy recommendations to share with policymakers later this year.

So much for a lazy summer vacation!

The stakes around these issues are high – and progress on these initiatives will make all the difference for students across the state in years to come. This work matters – especially around these three key themes – because we know that:

  1. Students with a strong start in school become educated, productive members of our workforce. An abundance of research shows that the academic achievement gap begins as a school readiness gap. Increased access to high-quality Pre-K programs should be a top priority, especially in high-need areas, so our students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn now and throughout their education.
  2. Only 30 percent of jobs in Arkansas require postsecondary credentials from an institution of higher learning. We need to elevate employability skills as a learning outcome in all schools across the state – a true focus on making all students, including those who plan on pursuing a college degree, “employable” or career-ready for both the middle- and highly-skilled workforce that companies of all sizes need to start and grow their businesses in Arkansas.
  3. With more Arkansas educators reaching retirement age, it is imperative to cultivate a strong pipeline of teachers and administrators with the skills and commitment to lead our schools and drive a culture of innovation and academic excellence. We must tackle this with a recognition of the realities facing many of our communities, where investment in educators has been a financial challenge.

You can learn more about our policy work here.  We’ll be sharing updates from our Policy Collaboratives and ways you can let your local policymakers know what must be changed to make an Arkansas education work for everyone.

“What is your vision for the future of education in Arkansas?”

This spring, hundreds of Arkansans gathered for ForwARd Together Conversations convened in Crossett, Independence County, Lee County, Little Rock, Pea Ridge and Springdale to tackle that and other pressing questions related to education in our state. The goal? To find insights to inform the development of statewide policies to improve education outcomes for all students.

These action-focused, small group conversations – held in boardrooms, school gymnasiums and restaurants across the state – engaged a group of diverse participants. We heard from local educators, business and civic leaders, policy-makers, parents, students, and other community and nonprofit partners. In addition, ForwARd’s Implementation Working Group and other statewide organization partners hosted conversations for their stakeholders.

Lee County hosted a conversation bringing community members and educators to the table to discuss how to better support students and track improvements.

In the end, three key themes emerged across these conversations. It is not surprising that these themes reinforce and provide further insights on the seven focus areas detailed in ForwARd’s A New Vision for Arkansas Education:

  1. While strides have been made, there is a strong acknowledgement that investment in Pre­K is critical to improving educational outcomes in Arkansas. Access to high-quality Pre-K learning opportunities is a top priority for all Arkansas children, especially those in high-need communities, so students arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.
  2. We heard loud and clear that a focus on making all students, including those who plan on pursuing a college degree, “employable” or career-ready is so very important. This includes providing students with opportunities to develop both in-demand technical skills that align with current and projected hiring needs, as well as life skills, such as communication, collaboration and leadership. We must also remove the negative stigma of vocational/technical career preparatory programs and provide options for college preparatory students to also explore such courses. There is a desire for employability to be baked into instructional models for all students starting much earlier in the K-12 educational process.
  3. Many also raised the fact that with more educators reaching retirement age, we must cultivate a strong pipeline of teachers and administrators with the skills and commitment to lead our schools and drive a culture of innovation and academic excellence. We must tackle this with a recognition of the realities facing many of our communities, where investment in educators has been a financial challenge.

Nearly 130 parents, students, educators, and business and community leaders gathered Monday night at the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale for ForwARd Together Conversations, organized by District Superintendent Dr. Jimmy D. Rollins.

This work does not happen in a vacuum. Underlying these priorities was an understanding and strong belief that partnerships between communities and schools are vitally important to accomplishing this work. Such partnerships will also help align local education and economic development initiatives and provide opportunities to support students and families outside the classroom.

There was a strong consensus that innovation is key to driving all of this work – personalized learning, STEM/STEAM, family literacy, career academies and other programs are providing students with the real-world skills needed to succeed in college, in careers and in life, while also creating a competitive advantage for the communities where they are offered. We must explore ways to expand and replicate innovative and successful initiatives that we’re seeing statewide.

There is a also a clear need for more equitable funding for both educational facilities and programs.

Our friends in Independence County discussed pre-k and the future of education at Southside School District during their ForwARd Together Conversation.

And, finally, all of this work must be supported by quality, integrated longitudinal data to track outcomes between Pre-K, K-12, post-secondary education/training and workforce participation and to inform future planning and resource allocation.

Communities spoke – we listened. Now, it’s time for action.

ForwARd will use insights from these conversations as the foundation for a comprehensive effort this fall to develop and advance common-sense policy recommendations for 2019 that will generate broad grassroots support statewide. Community voice is, and will continue to be, integral to this process – we look forward to hearing from and working with you.

On April 27, ForwARd Arkansas – alongside the Little Rock School District (LRSD) and the Clinton School of Public Service – released a new toolkit aimed at boosting academic achievement among LRSD middle school students.

Last September, a group of practicum students from the Clinton School of Public Service began conducting best-practices research on successful school-community partnership models from around the U.S. They used this research to develop a toolkit that would serve as a guiding mechanism for implementing hands-on, project-based learning at LRSD middle schools.

Specifically, the practicum students focused on eight LRSD middle schools and how community partnerships could help improve academic success. ForwARd Arkansas played an integral role serving as the community organization that connected the practicum students with the LRSD middle schools.

At its press conference to announce the release of the toolkit, LRSD highlighted two of the community-school partnerships that will be implemented during the next school year. Dunbar students will familiarize themselves with the mission and work of Heifer International to study and address issues of poverty, hunger, and sustainability. Henderson students will take advantage of unique communication opportunities at West Central Community Center to develop programming support for the Center’s new radio station.

According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, students earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, stay in school and are more motivated when schools, parents, families and communities work together. High quality schools at the elementary and secondary levels have demonstrated improved student outcomes when connected to community resources and families.

And while this specific project may have come to a successful end, ForwARd Arkansas is committed to continuing a partnership with Little Rock School District to best serve its students, families and the community as a whole.

Our work with the five ForwARd Communities is at the heart of our strategy to engage and empower residents as partners with the most at stake for the education of children and youth in their communities. Working together we build on the assets of each community, providing technical assistance and facilitating community planning designed to empower and give voice to all community members. Our goal is to stimulate innovation that brings new ideas and approaches to bear on the pressing challenges facing communities, energizing opportunity and growth, and serving as examples for other communities.

During this first year:

  1. ForwARd Communities are creating detailed strategic plans for community engagement with school systems, with particular emphasis on communication with students’ families. These Communities will serve as demonstration models for other communities throughout the state to effectively engage local resources in support of students’ and their families’ needs.
  2. ForwARd Communities have already begun sharing best practices for community engagement with one another.
  3. Plans for our communities include expanding the opportunity for communication among the five and for developing a tool for local leaders to use as they lead efforts in their own communities.

ForwARd Communities

  1. Crossett: ForwARd has convened a diverse array of both formal and informal leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and helped them to craft a first draft of their ForwARd Crossett strategic plan. This plan is focused on long-term, systemic improvements to the education system and how the community can best support students. ForwARd also hosted a back-to-school fair which connected more than 80% of students enrolled in the Crossett School District and their families to ForwARd’s Vision.
  2. Independence County: Working in concert with the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce and its IMPACT Independence County initiative, ForwARd convened more than 1,500 community members to learn from experts representing Arkansas state agencies, community colleges, universities, and industry leaders in educational innovation. In the weeks following, all four local school districts finalized strategic plans for collaborating with one another and achieving their own success. They are now preparing to implement those plans from the grassroots up.
  3. Lee County: Building on recently completed work funded by the Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation, ForwARd has led a group of key community leaders through the process of drafting their ForwARd Lee County strategic plan. When finalized, this plan will feature long-term initiatives focused on systems change which can be owned and implemented by members of the community. ForwARd also hosted a back-to-school barbecue which brought together institutions of higher education, small business owners, and elected leadership alongside students and their families.
  4. Pea Ridge: ForwARd has invested in technical expertise and experienced research professionals to assist the Pea Ridge School District in planning for its future as the growth of the Pea Ridge community continues steadily. A series of Visioning and Listening sessions are underway. Efforts to benchmark objectives are also in process. In addition, ForwARd is sharing the story of the Pea Ridge Manufacturing & Business Academy, a conversion charter school within the district that focuses on cutting-edge career-technical education and embeds both hard skills and soft skills into an academic standards-based curriculum. This innovative model has the potential to spread all across Arkansas as well as the nation.
  5. Springdale: ForwARd is providing technical assistance to the Springdale School District as it launches #SpringdaleReads – a multi-year effort to ensure that every Springdale student reads on grade-level by the end of third grade and that the community cultivates a “culture of literacy.” Education leaders from throughout the Springdale community are also working, with the guidance from ForwARd, to refine strategies for deepening connections with the Hispanic population and making new connections with the unique and growing Marshallese population in the area. Springdale is working to identify resources for social workers and for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. As part of their work to connect with community, the district is reconvening its Community Council.

In our roles as catalyst, convener, partner, and truth-teller, ForwARd will continue to advance our efforts in 2018.

This year’s mid-week conference attracted over 450 educators working to build momentum to transform learning.  There were schools present who have been working in a school innovation model for three years or more and there were others present who were gathering information and inspiration to begin their own journey.  Currently there are 52 Schools of Innovation within 29 districts impacting 33,792 students in Arkansas.

Commissioner Key kicked off the conference by urging participants not to settle for adequacy but to seek excellence.  ForwARd Arkansas staff joined the conference to hear ideas from schools doing exactly that—seeking excellence. These schools are serving as laboratories to prototyping innovation in an impressive variety of models.

At our table for the opening session, we joined schools from Rogers and Hamburg.  These two districts couldn’t be much farther apart geographically, demographically, or in enrollment, yet both were meeting together to bring innovation and excellence to their schools.

Culture of Creativity

The conference covered a diverse array of topics but a couple of consistent themes emerged.  One theme was fostering a culture of creativity for teachers and students.  In the opening keynote John Spencer shared the value of teachers using a design thinking framework to help every student develop a maker mindset. In a later session, he detailed the Genius Hour Concept which several schools at the conference were using.  The Genius Hour is a part of some of the most innovative companies in the world and was very well received by a diverse group of educators attending the session.

The culture of creativity begins at the top with 21st Century Administrators who use creative means to provide opportunities for students such at the impoverished Coachella Valley Unified School District in California.  Connecting with Apple, Inc., to bring one-to-one devices for students, WiFi on buses to students’ neighborhoods that did not otherwise have broadband access, career academies (including aviation), and the Year of the Parent connecting with parents by walking a mile in their shoes.  Superintendent Adams went with a group of parents one morning to cut grapes for a time to better understand their work.

Buddy Berry from Eminence Independent School District in Kentucky also detailed several examples of a school centered around innovation and creativity.  And alongside these national experts were some excellent presentations from Arkansas educators, including leadership from Pea Ridge Primary School, located in the ForwARd Community of Pea Ridge.

Digital Learning

Digital learning in a variety of ways was a second theme of the conference. Ken Grover of Innovation High School in Salt Lake City, shared their dynamic school design where most learning is done independently by students with teachers available for guidance.

Cross County Arkansas shared their virtual internship program connecting students via skype and other technology to professionals in 17 states and 2 countries.  The program allows high school students to experience professions that they don’t see and can’t access in Cross County.

Dr. Jim Rickabaugh, Senior Advisor to the Institute for Personalized Learning, pointed out that today’s learning systems are too often based on a system designed to serve the needs of a by-gone era.  He emphasized that current education problems are not caused by leaders, teachers or students but by the design itself.  We must develop high capacity, flexible learners.

Several digital tools providing online learning and competency learning were shared throughout the conference. Personalized learning dominated the subject matter in the discussions.  One of the Arkansas examples was Lincoln Middle School in Lincoln, Arkansas. Leaders encouraged all to rethink the four walls of the schools.  They are accessing Lincoln Lake, a 130-acre recreation park, for rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, mountain biking and fishing to incorporate education concepts in the adventure activities. In addition to academic skills, they are building leadership and team skills.

We are so glad to have been a part of this conference and learning about the innovative ways districts and teachers are pushing their students toward excellence. We can’t wait to see these themes emerge and grow in our ForwARd Communities!

The Education Innovation Summit is sponsored by the Office of Innovation for Education, Denise Airola, Executive Director

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (August 23, 2017) – ForwARd Arkansas, a partnership between the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, today announced its designation as one of this year’s Practicum partners at the Clinton School of Public Service. Four members of this year’s Clinton School class will conduct best-practices research on successful school-community partnership models from around the U.S. to help craft a structure for Little Rock schools to engage with partners and create long-term plans.
Specifically, the Practicum project will focus on middle schools in the Little Rock School District – Cloverdale, Dunbar, Forest Heights STEM, Henderson, Mabelvale, Mann Magnet, Pinnacle View and Pulaski Heights – and what community partnerships will help them improve student achievement.
“We know that community partnerships are crucial to enriching students both academically and emotionally, and we are honored that the Clinton School chose us as one of its Practicum projects this year,” said Susan Harriman, executive director of ForwARd Arkansas. “Aligning our Practicum team’s work to assist the Little Rock School District seemed like a natural extension of our mission and a great way for us to support our local middle schools.”
Participating students include Connor Donovan of Little Rock (University of Arkansas at Little Rock); Kirby Richardson of Rogers (University of Central Arkansas); Katie Barnes of Atchison, Kansas (MidAmerica Nazarene University); and Rachel Cole of Bloomington, Indiana (Smith College). The project will culminate with a set of formalized school-community partnership recommendations in spring 2018.
According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, students earn higher grades, attend school more regularly, stay in school and are more motivated when schools, parents, families and communities work together. High quality schools have demonstrated track records connecting with community resources and families to improve student outcomes at elementary and secondary levels.
“Community partnerships have been demonstrated time and time again as the backbone of a successful school district, and I’m looking forward to the recommendations developed by this year’s Practicum team for our middle schools to implement next school year,” said Michael Poore, superintendent of the Little Rock School District. “It’s my hope that this project results in a district plan that enriches our middle schools with the community support they need to improve, succeed and to impact their students with real and relevant projects.”
Other education institutions in ForwARd Communities were also chosen this year as Clinton School Practicum partners: Phoenix Youth and Family Services, led by Toyce Newton, a leader of ForwARd’s efforts in Crossett, Arkansas, and the EAST Initiative, led by Matt Dozier, a member of ForwARd’s Implementation Working Group.
For more information on ForwARd Arkansas, please visit
About ForwARd Arkansas
ForwARd Arkansas, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is a partnership of education, business, government and community leaders committed to improving public education in Arkansas. This partnership has conducted extensive research and continues to encourage statewide discussion and bold action to strengthen public education. ForwARd was established through a partnership between the Arkansas State Board of Education, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. For more information, please visit

Lee County and Crossett held Back-to-School Block Parties to kick off the 2017-2018 school year. The events took place on August 5th and 19th respectively as the community and its leaders enjoyed fun-filled, sunny days. The purpose of the events was to promote a community-wide focus on education within Lee County and Crossett.

In Lee County, Marianna Mayor Jimmy Williams, State Representative Reginald Murdock, Lee County’s new Superintendent Antony Hobbs, Jr. and school district personnel gave remarks on education and community engagement during the block party. State Representative Reginald Murdock shared this statement during the event: “I talked to you all the time about service to mankind. Loving and caring about one another. Someone has cared about us. ForwARd Arkansas has chosen you. Take that personally.” Gifts from the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team were given during the event’s raffle. In addition, free food and entertainment was provided through local organizations donations. The event ended with a local talent show – residents and students showcased their dance moves to today’s music songs.

Crossett’s Block Party became a mini festival with over 300 people in attendance. Many of the local organizations in Crossett distributed information and gave away prizes at their respectively tables. Several community leaders and school district personnel such as Crossett School District Superintendent Gary Williams and Crossett High School Assistant Principal Anthony Boykin were in attendance as well. During the event, people could be seen participating in mini golf putting, exploring a firetruck from Crossett’s Fire Department, or getting involved in a Zumba workout. The event concluded with an outdoor movie showing of the “Minions.” The reoccurring among participants was, “We really have a partner in the work for educational advancement and achievement in ForwARd Arkansas. Positive change can actually happen now.”

We also want to acknowledge the following sponsors/contributors for their role in the Lee County Block Party: Lee County School District, Men of Action, Food Giant, City of Marianna, Coach James Banks, Lee County Sheriff Department, Lee County Cooperative Clinic, community organizations and universities.

We also want to acknowledge the following sponsors/contributors for their role in the Crossett Block Party: Crossett Chamber of Commerce, Timberline Federal Credit Union, Cash Saver, Aaron’s, First National Bank of Crossett, Ashley County Medical Center, Crossett School District, Phoenix Youth & Family Services Inc., Crossett Economic Development Foundation, community organizations and universities.