Grantmakers in Education Conference Allows Arkansas Leaders to Share their Perspectives on Educational Equity

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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