Crystal Johnson Named One of Arkansas’ 250 Most Influential Leaders

November 8, 2019

Through their partnership with ForwARd Arkansas, Independence County has become a dynamic center of higher learning and training with unique educational partnerships that begin early in K-12 public schools and advance through partnerships with higher education and business. Much of this work is being led by the team at the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce. We are pleased to share that Chamber CEO Crystal Johnson was just named one Arkansas’ 250 most influential leaders by Arkansas Business Publishing Group. We sat down with Crystal to learn more about her background and how working to improve educational outcomes became part of the Chamber’s portfolio.

What led you to your role as CEO of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce?

Working with the Chamber in a professional capacity was not on my radar when I was asked to apply for the position. At first, I thought I was being asked to serve on the board, not apply for a leadership position. I remember hanging up from that call and immediately Googling, “What is a Chamber of Commerce?” I quickly learned that there are no two chambers exactly alike; they are just as diverse as the community each serves.

Our local Chamber had been through a tremendous amount of turnover and instability in the past, but the benefit was that I got to come in with a blank slate. I was able to build my own team and get down to work and start rebuilding, reshaping and reorganizing. It took several years to get back on the right track. Once we did, the stars aligned and we gained momentum for the community when we launched our IMPACT Strategic Plan in 2016.

IMPACT is a grassroots community development plan with a focus on economic prosperity, tourism, educational excellence, and healthy living and wellbeing. When thinking about the education component of this work, what has surprised you?

It is surprising how fast any school can make gains when they are able to build trust internally and our team, self-assess honestly, engage their stakeholders and work their plan. We usually think of growth or gains to be long-term, but in some cases, we have seen significant improvement in just one year because of these kinds of commitments.

What has inspired you in this work?

There is nothing like experiencing the excitement of an education professional with a new idea or celebrating an accomplishment. These are the people who are chipping away at their goals day-in and day-out and doing it with the biggest heart for children, and we are here for it!

Why do you believe the Chamber’s partnership with ForwARd is important?

Many of our achievements wouldn’t have been possible without ForwARd, beginning with the 2017 Education Summit that organized our work. ForwARd has played a pivotal role in how we think about and organize our work. They provide needed perspective, brainstorming and connections to a network of talented professionals inside and outside of the education field. ForwARd’s involvement has helped us get commitment and buy-in from district educators. Most importantly, they have provided resources and expertise to help us identify and implement approaches to drive favorable outcomes.

Using plans from the Education Summit and through a partnership with DESCRIBE Dr. Megan Slocum that was facilitated by ForwARd, one of our underperforming school’s was just ranked ninth in student growth in the state.

ForwARd believes that engaged and empowered communities with innovative partnerships are necessary to develop new opportunities for students and communities to advance education. What are some examples of successful partnerships you’ve seen in Batesville?

There are so many. A few examples:

  1. We utilized the Chamber’s Annual Meeting two years ago to solicit seed funding for the Independence Promise program, which inspired the Arkansas Concurrent Challenge, that will use excess Arkansas Lottery proceeds to fund scholarships. You don’t see community engagement like that making a statewide difference every day, but in Independence County, if we can dream it, then we find a way to do it.
  2. Our city engineer serving as the community expert for Midland High School’s Future City program. The program, which challenges students to compete by building a city with a unique challenge from start to finish, was part of programming for their new STEAM transformation. ForwARd invested in a learning journey for our staff and Midland’s leadership team to see a school who had made a similar transformation in early 2018.
  3. Independence County Cares is a coordinated care network established in 2019 to serve students’ immediate, basic needs to contribute to their overall well-being and support their ability to achieve educationally. There are many partners, community leaders and individuals, who comprise the network, which aims to fulfill any student need in 48 hours or less.
  4. Batesville High School has leveraged local partnerships with the construction services and many other industries to enroll students in registered apprenticeship training programs. They rolled out their E3 Internship/Apprenticeship training program in October 2018 with 30 employers brought to the table with the help of the Batesville Area Chamber through ForwARd.
  5. Southside School District has been able to stabilize the Future Story Model, a program that encourages students to identify what they would like their future to be and then supports the student in reaching that goal. The District is in process of expansion of the model with the support of the Batesville Area Chamber of Commerce and ForwARd. The charter authorizing panel has just recommended approval of a junior high charter for the District called My Future Discovery, which expands the Future Story Model and aligns with the IMPACT Independence County pillars of Tourism, Educational Excellence, Healthy Living and Wellbeing, Economic Prosperity.

What’s next for the Batesville Chamber in your work with Independence County schools?

The Chamber is perfectly poised to strengthen connections between family, community, health and education resources. In addition, we have hit the ground running on a statewide collaborative called Excel by Eight (E8), which is led by the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. We will continue our work to expand the community school model throughout the county. We are also looking forward to hosting another countywide education summit in 2020 to reflect on progress, lessons learned and provide a forum for dialogue that leads to updated school improvement plans.