Susan Harriman, Executive Director

When ForwARd Arkansas was founded in 2014, we knew that enhancing equity, opportunity and innovation would be the focus of our work to improve education – especially in a state like Arkansas where educational opportunities are distributed widely across a rural landscape and where a majority of jobs are low-skill and low-wage.

Our work since then has only strengthened our belief that education can no longer be slow to change, but must take the lead and drive changes that better prepare young people for their future, not our past. I’m proud to say that ForwARd Arkansas took great strides to lead this change in 2018.

This spring, we hosted a series of ForwARd Together Conversations that convened a wide range of stakeholders from across the state to identify policies and practices needed to increase equity and drive enhanced educational outcomes for all students. We then convened three interdisciplinary Policy Collaboratives to develop and advance common-sense policy recommendations around the key themes that emerged through these conversations.

We’re also proud of the strides that ForwARd in building urgency and focus around the need to connect data and research to education, workforce and economic development policy and practice. In partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Institute for Chief Data Officers, in September, we convened an inaugural Data & Policy Symposium to discuss the importance of quality, integrated, longitudinal data in tracking local and statewide educational outcomes. A new statewide Data and Research Consortium will collaborate with stakeholders to conduct research and analyze data along the cradle-to-post-secondary-to-career continuum to help achieve improved outcomes for all students. We believe that this is increasingly critical to drive high performance and continuous improvement.

This is all in addition to the amazing work being done in our initial cohort of five diverse ForwARd Communities – Crossett, Independence County, Lee County, Pea Ridge and Springdale – who continue their work to develop, implement and replicate innovative programs, practices and partnerships that provide new opportunities to advance education for students and communities across the state.

Through these initiatives, our team has been listening, learning and laying the groundwork to create change in the areas that matter most to educators across the state. In 2019, we’ll continue to move this agenda forward to support legislation, policies, best practices and innovations that increase access to high-quality Pre-K programs, strength the educator pipeline and elevate student employability as a learning outcome.

As the ForwARd team reflects on the year, we couldn’t be more thankful for the partnerships and collaborations that have helped us create change for students across Arkansas.

For more details at what we’ve been up to this year, check out our Year in Review.

Year in Review 2018

ForwARd Arkansas would like to congratulate J.B. Hunt Elementary, one of only three schools in Arkansas, on their National Blue Ribbon recognition from the U.S. Department of Education. J.B. Hunt Elementary is part of the Springdale School District – a longtime ForwARd Community. The National Blue Ribbon program recognizes both public and private schools for high academic achievement or progress toward closing the achievement gap.

J.B. Hunt Elementary first opened its doors in 2005 in Springdale, Arkansas, thanks to the generous land donation by the founder and CEO of J.B. Hunt Transport and his family. Their district motto, “ALL Means ALL, Teach Them ALL, Learning for ALL,” is something the school holds close to their heart as they work to ensure equal access to a superior education through its mission to provide a personalized education, foster relationships, and increase knowledge by motivating, challenging, and nurturing the whole child.

“I am proud to be part of a great education system that prioritizes a supportive environment not only of our students but their parents and the community as well,” said Michelle Doshier, Principal of J.B. Hunt Elementry. “It is important to me that every person who walks into our school feels welcome and has all the resources they need to be successful.”

The school offers an interactive, hands-on learning with 1:1 technology access, emotional and behavioral support, and extra-curricular enrichment that allows students to come together in a fun and highly collaborative environment to promote growth.

Similarly, students receive a personalized and positive learning experience through effective teaching, vertically-aligned programs, and professional learning communities that meet to address students needs. The overarching framework for instruction at the school is known as Gradual Release, and it allows teachers to guide, differentiate, and give students the strategies needed to master a deeper understanding of the content that is being taught.

With support from ForwARd Arkansas, we are confident J.B. Hunt Elementary will continue working to expand their one-of-a-kind education to other schools in the Springdale School District.

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Most efforts to improve educational equity connect back to one question: “what does it mean to successfully invest in a student?” In October, ForwARd participated in the annual Grantmakers in Education conference which brought together organizations from across the U.S. to refine their perspectives on investing in education.

As part of the conference, ForwARd’s Executive Director Susan Harriman moderated a panel discussion focused on promoting and maintaining equity in an educational landscape that is consistently evolving. The panelists were also from Arkansas and were able to highlight the innovative ways the state is engaging around this issue.

The panel focused on the importance of creating fresh partnerships with organizations that fall outside the typical spectrum of educational resources. Panelist Nile Blunt, Head of School Programs for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, explained how the museum has developed two specialized online art courses for high school students that are free for teachers to use. By creating these courses for students, the museum no longer solely acts as a peripheral resource that enhances education only when students walk through its galleries. Instead, it becomes an integral part of art education in Arkansas and makes it more attainable and equitable for all Arkansas students.

Todd Shields, Dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas, stressed the importance of art in obtaining educational equity with a particular focus on the role that the arts play in all educational environments. For example, in biology classes, students who use materials such as paint and clay to demonstrate their knowledge of cellular anatomy are typically more engaged than those who learn the structure of a cell to perform well on a test.

In many cases, financial support is needed to encourage change, especially in educational environments that are typically underserved or present unique challenges. Panelist Shannon Tisher, Principal of the Don Tyson School of Innovation, noted that 59 percent of her students are economically disadvantaged, and 20 percent are English learners. While Tisher knows her students have the potential to change the world, ultimately they need to be provided with the opportunities to succeed academically. Kim Davis, Senior Program Officer of the Walton Family Foundation, explained that one of his strategies for education grantmaking is investing in projects that lie at the intersection of innovation and problem-solving. Don Tyson, for example, allows students to select their subject matter throughout each day, which lets them progress through their learning at their own pace and focus on topics that are meaningful to them.

The underlying theme of the panel was that successful educational investments ensure that students are engaged to develop a love of learning and a creative spark. While each panelist brought a unique perspective to the conversation, the panel symbolized the importance of connecting the dots between organizations to advance equity and innovation in the classroom. Just as ForwARd helps connects those dots in Arkansas every day, we were proud to lead this conversation and bring Arkansas to the forefront of the equity in education conversation on a national scale.

From left to right: Kim Davis, Susan Harriman, Todd Shields, Shannon Tisher, Nile Blunt and Courtney Lincoln

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Austin Simmons, a senior at Cedar Ridge High School, is taking an introductory English class at the University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB). Like many other high school students, Austin has looked forward to attending college, but its considerable price tag has been a source of financial stress for his family.

Luckily, Independence County – a ForwARd Community – has unveiled a new scholarship program to make college courses and career training more accessible for high school students. The Independence Promise allows students like Austin to take the same classes they would otherwise take at a four-year institution ahead of time for significantly less money. The program also allows students to gain experience with college-level coursework, which can help prepare them for the rigor of higher education.

“The Independence Promise has helped me get one step closer to achieving my college dreams,” says Simmons. “Because my family can start paying for my education now for less money, it definitely takes some of the stress off of our shoulders.”

The Independence Promise Scholarship Program lessens the financial burden of higher education through a model funded primarily by scholarships from the Independence County Public Education Foundation. Not only does the program provide students with educational opportunities outside their high school classrooms, it aims to improve the educational motivation of students overall.

“We see this as an opportunity to not only invest in higher educational attainment for our emerging workforce, but also to provide some deeper engagement for students who struggle with planning for their future in the last years of high school and may become unmotivated or even drop out as a result,” says Dr. Brian Shonk, Chair of the Independence County Public Education Foundation. “This gives them something to get excited for and a change of pace and place that directly relates to their future.”

Though Simmons has an idea of what he wants to study in school – Bible and Family Ministry – taking that English course at UACCB might open his eyes to an undiscovered passion. Or, it might just be a way to gain college credit in pursuit of his career plan. Either way, the Independence Promise places students on a track for increased educational attainment. Not only will this lead to a more educated workforce and higher earnings for graduates, it means a greater disposable income for local families and a strengthened local economy.

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By investing in high-quality Pre-K, we make sure students start their academic career on the right foot and stay ahead from the beginning. That’s certainly the belief at Southside School District in Independence County.

“Pre-K is not an afterthought – it’s the pillar of our district, the pillar of our community, and it keeps families here,” said Roger Rich, Southside School District Superintendent.



The District is passionate about getting children enrolled into Pre-K programs to better prepare them for kindergarten and beyond. While there, students are gaining social skills, building their creativity through projects, and learning how to be a part of a classroom. This creates a safe environment to help young students develop and soar. Just as their students have developed, Southside’s programs have continuously evolved and grown, adding two new classrooms to increase the number of students they serve.

An increase of $3 million in permanent funding for the Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program during the 91st Arkansas General Assembly in 2017 to benefit schools across the state, but ForwARd Arkansas believes that ongoing investment in early childhood education is critical to improving educational outcomes in Arkansas and help schools like Southside Preschool get the recognition and funding they need to continue to grow.

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As Arkansas continues to forge its way as a leader in educational innovation, the Office of Innovation for Education and the Arkansas Department of Education hosted the 4th Annual Education Innovation Summit in September to bring innovators together to network, design, innovate, and reflect on their vision as a community of learners.

Rick Neal, Superintendent of Pea Ridge School District was on site to discuss what Pea Ridge – a ForwARd Community – is doing to revolutionize education for Arkansas students and how their partnership with ForwARd enhances the District’s mission of providing an “Uncommon Education for All.”

Superintendent Neal highlighted Pea Ridge’s focus on personalized learning that emphasizes the individual strengths and needs of each student and their ongoing commitment to creating partnerships with businesses to produce a more employable student body through the Pea Ridge Manufacturing and Business Academy (PRMBA) and the Pea Ridge Exploration of Pathways (PREP). Both PRMBA and PREP are focused on enhancing the traditional education model to provide the next generation with resources and more importantly, skills, needed to thrive on whatever path they choose post-graduation. For example, PRMBA partnered with J.B. Hunt last year to employ two students from the marketing and logistics pathway who have remained employed there to this day.

Their investment in generating a workforce-ready student body garnered a lot of attention from Summit attendees and proved to be a key takeaway to change the course of education for students in communities across the state.

While Pea Ridge School District continues to set a precedent on how to modernize education in Arkansas, Superintendent Neal noted they are not done yet. The District is determined to create new infrastructure that further aligns their curriculum to enhance and support their employability efforts.

For more information on the Summit and Pea Ridge’s initiatives that are transforming education, click here:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Susan Harriman
ForwARd Executive Director

“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.

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.

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