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PREP-ing students for their future

Pea Ridge School District doing its part to address workforce needs of Fortune 500 companies in Northwest Arkansas

Published November 26, 2018
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PEA RIDGE, AR – Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt Transport Services – Fortune 500 companies – are in our backyard and they’re growing. Opportunities like this don’t come along very often, a fact not lost on Northwest Arkansas Council Chief Operating Officer Mike Harvey. What these corporate giants need, though, that they can’t readily buy is a pipeline that yields a steady flow of STEM-trained employees who possess well-developed transferable soft skills.

With a plummeting unemployment rate due to explosive business growth in the region, Northwest Arkansas had an issue when Harvey arrived seven years ago. So, he interviewed hundreds of business leaders to determine their specific needs.

“We’re getting feedback from them on, ‘What are your issues, the burrs in your saddle, what might they be?’ The responses covered everything from community services to education,” Harvey said. “With zero surprise to me, the results showed that workforce was issue one.”

Instead of turning to only higher education, trade schools, and certification programs, the usual producers of new technology-literate employees, Harvey dug a little deeper, recognizing the lack of a true long-term solution. “What I was more concerned about was the 80-some thousand kids that we’ve got coming up through the public school systems in Northwest Arkansas and how that could, within a decade or less, really start to put a dent in the issues that we’re having,” he said.

A TECHNOLOGY TRAILBLAZER

When Harvey went knocking on educators’ doors, one of the first to answer was Pea Ridge School District Superintendent Rick Neal, a longtime career and technical education proponent who wanted to make more and better career inroads for the students of his small district in Benton County, just east of the burgeoning Bentonville-Rogers-Springdale area that serves as the hub of business activity and growth. (See Leadership Perspective.)

“Rick was one of the first ones to step up,” Harvey said. “He came to us, as a matter of fact, and PRMBA [Pea Ridge Manufacturing and Business Academy] was conceived through some discussions and hard work between him and Cheryl [Pickering, the Arkansas CTE coordinator]. They were pretty much the first ones out of the gate, saying that we can put together a careers high school. We can give a kid that academic credential, but we can also give them some walking-around skills once they get out if they don’t pursue postsecondary and have to be ready for a job on day one.”

Within a few years, PRMBA blossomed at Pea Ridge High School as courses were established in career pathways such as computer science, health care, industrial technology, and marketing and logistics. But upon close inspection, Neal still saw a gap. He realized that getting students exposed to careers and developing communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity (the 4Cs) as soft skills even earlier could yield better results.

After considering multiple options for planting these seeds at the elementary and middle school levels, Neal and his team worked with Pitsco Education over a two-year period to clarify vision and map a custom collection of hands-on K-8 STREAM/STEM programs and curriculum that aligned with standards and laid a foundation for all eight career pathways in PRMBA. The K-8 program was named PREP (Pea Ridge Exploration of Pathways).

“It came to me the second year of PRMBA, when I saw the impact it was making on kids, how interest was driving them to come to school and then to get a job,” Neal said. “The personalization of that resonated with us, and I brought our elementary principal in, and I said, ‘This is where I’m headed, this is what we’re going to do, and I want you to figure out how to personalize learning at the K-2 level.’”

PREP IS A GAME CHANGER

PREP extends from kindergarten through eighth grade this school year with Pitsco’s STEM Units, STREAM Missions, and STEM Expeditions®. Intermediate Principal Mindy Bowlin said the hands-on STREAM Missions have been a game changer for her students and teachers alike.

“I think our test scores should go up because of our nonfiction exposure through the journals and things like that that last year I know was not happening to the level it is this year,” Bowlin said. “Also, our math and STEM teachers, they meet a lot like a content PLC [professional learning community] and talk about different standards that the STEM curriculum can help support or help introduce.”

Every student in the school has STEM every day to ensure they get ample opportunity to develop those 4Cs through hands-on, career-rich experiences. Harvey visited the intermediate STEM labs and observed firsthand students working collaboratively in four-person crews, communicating and creating while employing critical thinking.

“You don’t just pick up these skills in a week’s time. The longer they’re doing it, the better they’re going to be for our employer community,” Harvey said. “In my interviews with businesses, it was mostly not about specific skills but about getting employees that they could train, somebody that’s flexible, somebody that’s a learner. That’s what you’re doing here is creating learners. . . . They’re always going to have to be adapting and changing to stay relevant. And so you’re giving kids the DNA to be lifelong learners. That more than anything is what’s important to employers.”

A SOLUTION FOR SMALLER DISTRICTS

Some of the larger school districts in the region – the Big 5 as they are known – have CTE programs targeted at growing the workforce for Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt, and other regional employers, but to adequately address the area’s growing need for IT professionals, health care providers, programmers, and technicians, smaller school districts such as Pea Ridge have to add programs such as PREP and PRMBA to do their part.

“There’s zero connectivity between most of the rural school districts and the employers that, quite frankly, would hire more of their students than they would out of the Big 5 because most of those kids are going on to postsecondary,” Harvey said. “But get out to Gravette or Gentry or somewhere like that and you don’t have as high a percentage of the kids going on to something else, and you want to be able to offer those kids some opportunity that’s going to pay more than minimum wage when they get out of school.”

Principal Bowlin has two daughters, Emory, a sixth grader, and Linley, a second grader, and is personally excited at the prospects of STEM education increasing her children’s career opportunities. “Emory needs to know what else is outside of Pea Ridge and what else is outside of her direct family contact. She knows about schools, she knows about Walmart, and my husband is a mechanic so she knows about mechanics. But outside of that, she doesn’t know a lot. For her to be able to choose some things later on, it’s our responsibility to expose her to that now.”

Harvey hopes that more educators, administrators, business leaders, and parents see the benefits of getting education and the business community working hand in hand to ultimately improve the local economy by growing the workforce and preparing students not for jobs that have been growing for the past 25 years but for those coming over the next 25 years.

“We’ve proven that the schools are good faith partners, and now it’s time for the business community to step up. . . . The proof of concept is done,” he said. “We can do this. But it needs more industry support, and it needs more employer support for these things to be successful. . . . If we don’t adapt and start moving kids into these types of career fields, we’re going to be left behind as a region.”

“Our kids are excited. They want to get into those classes . . . they’re collaborating! Just to see that higher-order thinking, that critical thinking, that problem-solving, and all the discovery that is happening in those classrooms is amazing!”

– Rose Chapa, principal, Somerset Junior High School, Somerset, Texas

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