Hundreds Gather for ForwARd Together Conversations Throughout Arkansas

“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.