ForwARd Thinking Dialogue Builds Community Partnerships: Independence County and Crossett

September 4, 2019

In late July, ForwARd Arkansas hosted a ForwARd Thinking Dialogue that paired local educators, business and civic leaders from partner communities Independence County and Crossett, providing a forum to explore different approaches and share best practices. Representatives from each community met to discuss student employability and how communities can support schools in preparing students for success in college or career.

Thurman Green, our policy and engagement associate, sat down with Jamie Rayford (JR), chief operating officer, Batesville Chamber of Commerce in Independence County, which serves as a community resource partner to ForwARd in Independence County, and Cherub Alford (CA), grant writer, Crossett Economic Development Foundation in Crossett, to discuss takeaways from their ForwARd Thinking Dialogue and their hopes for the future of their partnership.

TG: How has the ForwARd Thinking Dialogue informed or enhanced your perceptions of each other’s communities?

CA: Crossett is located in Southeast Arkansas and sometimes it’s difficult for resources to reach us. Our partnership with ForwARd, and specifically this ForwARd Thinking Dialogue, helped us to see other communities and organizations are willing to support Crossett. Workforce initiatives are instrumental in both our communities, and Independence County’s experience in engaging civic and business leaders in getting more engaged with and supporting their schools is an asset to our current and future efforts in Crossett.

JR: There is always something to be gained when you share and collaborate with those who have similar goals and missions. No matter the size, demographics, or resources of your community or organization, everyone has something to offer and something to learn,  even if it is only an idea that they can adapt or operationalize. Those kinds of quality interactions are what we seek with other communities.

We were impressed with Crossett’s facilities, particularly the new Crossett High School, during our visit and were very interested in hearing about how they funded it. Superintendent Williams’s leadership and the culture he is building in Crossett is commendable – his community can count on him to discuss tough issues and support what is best for Arkansas students.

TG: How does your community help prepare high school graduates for what lies ahead – either college or the workforce? How can we better connect with students to prepare them for what’s next?

JR: In the past, we have shared the common mentality that we have to do more to expose high school students to more careers, expect more from them, and remove barriers preventing them from succeeding in college and the workforce. All of those things are still true, but we have added to that mentality and we MUST start much earlier preparing students on deck to bat, not just when they get to the home stretch.

CA: In Crossett, we start discussing career options with students in Pre-K and Kindergarten – we know that waiting until students are in high school is too late to discuss their future. Crossett offers several programs that help students better prepare for college or career. A few examples include: the EAST Lab programs for students who are interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), our Teacher Cadet program to students interested in the teaching profession and the Nursing Program at the University of Arkansas-Monticello that helps prepare students for the medical field. We also offer opportunities through Future Farmers of America, Agriculture Division, Community Gardening and Welding Courses. These opportunities provide our students excellent chances to create a successful and sustainable life while also participating in public service by filling critical community needs.

JR: We know that the early grades (before age 8) are the greatest opportunity to teach focus, keeping track of things, prioritization, organizing and planning, effective management of time and timelines, adapting to the unexpected, problem-solving, the ability to get along with others and work as a team, and keeping emotions under control so that one doesn’t get overwhelmed in their environment. Importantly, these are the same skills our business leaders communicate as most needed.

TG: How do you see the partnership between Crossett and Independence County growing? In what ways do you hope to assist one another in advancing your community goals?

JR: Crossett and Independence County have many similarities as rural communities – including demand for Pre-K, variables affecting the quality of the workforce, community development needs, teacher shortages, etc. During our recent visit to Crossett, we were able to offer a number of suggestions for some of the challenges they shared, but we took away some ideas of theirs that we wanted to research for our own implementation. That is the beauty of this opportunity, and we look forward to continuing the discussion.

CA: We loved the opportunity to host the team from Independence County. We hope to create a similar opportunity for Crossett leaders to visit Independence County to see firsthand their successes and challenges and perhaps provide input to strengthen their work moving forward.