Additional Pea Ridge (AR) Public Schools articles:
TPN: The Pitsco Network
RN: Rick Neal, Superintendent, Pea Ridge (AR) Public Schools
TPN: You recently added Pitsco Education K-8 STEM
curriculum, which you call the Pea Ridge Exploration
of Pathways (PREP). Why is it important to extend
STEM to a full K-12 approach?
RN: It’s the only way kids are going to understand it. They’re
not going to get it just at the junior/senior level. . . . This is a
marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to be exciting the next five to
six years to see those kids come up through those programs.
I’m especially excited for the sixth-grade kids coming up
through seventh, eighth, and ninth, and by the time they get
to 10th, you’ve got PRMBA (Pea Ridge Manufacturing and
Business Academy [high school career pathways]). And kids
will have already had STEM for five years.
TPN: When did you recognize the need for a K-8 PREP program?
RN: 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. 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.”
TPN: What stopped you from getting on the STEM train sooner?
RN: I’ve had this internal struggle with STEM because it’s
always been hodgepodged. It’s never been a program; it’s
always been a buzzword to me. It’s never resonated with
me that this could potentially be the vehicle for people to
understand work. So, during our conversations with Pitsco
over two years, that educational piece helped us create this
and say, “OK, this is the foundational piece we need.”
TPN: How did you eventually come to invite business and
industry to the education table?
RN: I recognized during this journey over the last five years that
business and industry have never been invited to the table.
Schools are notoriously territorial of their educational principles
and values, and business and industry have never been a part
of the conversation. When we opened that door, business
and industry came right through. Everybody that I have a
conversation with in business and industry, they understand
it. They get it. They know that they need to be a partner in
educating their next employees, rather than being out there
waiting on the next employees to be trained by them.
TPN: Give an example of Pea Ridge’s program directly
benefitting local business and industry.
RN: It costs J.B. Hunt and Walmart (headquartered in nearby
Bentonville), on average, $15,000 to train an individual
employee. And when you tell them, “Hey, we’re going to
train them the way you want them, and they’re going to be
able to do the things that you need done immediately when
they come to work for you,” that’s an immediate savings to them. So, you’re really benefiting the
business and industry partner by bringing their
environment into your school.
TPN: What role do business and industry play
in Pea Ridge’s CTE efforts?
RN: They are the evaluators and they are the
teachers of our people to design what they
want. We’ve let them have the latitude to say,
“This is what we need, this is what we want, and
this is how it needs to be done.” And we grant
that latitude to do those things.
TPN: Has your district’s shift to STEM been
noticed by others?
RN: It resonates with an organization called ForwARd
Arkansas; it resonates with the Walton Family
Foundation; it resonates with the Arkansas State
Chamber of Commerce; it resonates with the
governor; it resonates with a lot of different
groups and entities that are reaching out to
us to share some of our ideas. We’ve kind of
developed a model with a lot of different
pieces that small schools haven’t developed
before. A lot of people have bits and pieces of
different things, but we have now aligned career
education from K through 12 using the STEM
model. We’ve aligned a community engagement
model with personalized learning K through 12.
We’ve aligned and linked everything to business
and industry and to all colleges.
TPN: Why was this new focus implemented in
RN: What we deal with right now in education is
that when kids get to 16-17 years old, they
really don’t know where they’re going or what
they’re doing. They’ve not been exposed to
anything else other than college. College is
what everybody talks about, which is fine. . . .
College and career are the same, in my opinion.
What we’ve done in our society is looked
at career education as an afterthought that
doesn’t have the value that college has. And
it does. And so I drive them together when I
speak about them.
TPN: Do you have community support for
this shift to a STEM/CTE focus?
RN: That’s where our community’s flipped. They
understand why we say that your kids are
going to have the opportunity to be exposed
to different pathways and different life
experiences while maintaining those college
aspirations. We’re not devaluing what you
want to do, but we’re going to offer you a
funding source for how to get there. We’re
going to show kids how to get that job that’s
going to draw them $16-17 an hour, then
they can fund college.
TPN: Are there opportunities in this region
for students coming out of high
school with certain aptitudes and
certifications to land a great career and
raise a family?
RN: There are multiple options and multiple
opportunities. And when students become
high school juniors and seniors, they make
themselves marketable. They give themselves
hope. They can see the pathways they can
get into by the time they’re sophomores, and
they say, “Oh, I want to take that, and I’ll take
that because I know that,” and they walk out
of here with jobs. They walk out with jobs.
That’s the beauty of PRMBA, is that those kids
have jobs, and there’s hope.
TPN: What got you started down
RN: ForwARd Arkansas came and
helped us build a strategic plan,
and we brought all of
our community in, and
we brought faith-based
organizations. We brought
business and industry in,
and we brought teachers in,
and we brought our classified
staff in, and we brought in
personnel, different people in
the community. And the one
thing that they wanted in this
five-year plan was this. Part
of their goal was to enhance
and improve the college and
career readiness of our school.
And that was their voice. That
wasn’t me. . . . Our community
values career education.
TPN: How is your approach different from traditional CTE programs
and career centers?
RN: The difference that I see in career technical education models and this
one is that they’ll tell you that they’ve linked it to business and industry.
But our model is driven by business and industry. In our model, teachers
are hired out of business and industry. They come from business and
industry. Yes, they’re certified as teachers, but we have them alternatively
certified through career and technical education.
TPN: How have parents embraced this change?
RN: If you’re a parent and you’re looking at this, and you see that your
kid is going to be able to see everything that he might go into by his
sophomore year, that’s powerful.
TPN: Tell us about the highly successful logistics course at Pea Ridge
RN: That’s all designed around J.B. Hunt. They had direct input on that; they
designed the work. And so it cuts the time and effort to get quality
applicants and quality employees. It’s like developing a farm club. We’re
going to build the farm club for them to do that. J.B. Hunt’s had the
latitude to tell the teacher what they want, the curriculum that they want
to be taught, the processes and the procedures and the rules of business.
TPN: Is there any danger in giving business and industry too much
leeway and input?
RN: They’re not monopolizing the process. They see it on the basis of economy,
how we can improve the local economy. This benefits them, but everybody
wins here. Everybody’s happy. It’s like closing day when you buy a house. The
real estate agent’s happy, the homeowner’s happy, the seller’s happy, the
title company’s happy, everybody’s happy. Same concept. In this situation
here, the student is coming to school and he’s engaged. Everybody’s happy.
The parents are happy, the stakeholders are happy, the economy is going to
continue to get good people in the workforce that allow things to continue
working and doing and moving. And so it’s just a win-win for everyone.
TPN: Talk about the importance of K-8 students developing transferable
soft skills that will eventually prove essential to their employability.
RN: It needs to be ingrained in them all the way up and down – the speaking
skills, the soft skills – and it takes more than two years to develop these
skills. The STEM model forces kids into having those conversations, making
connections, and collaborating. That’s why we think PREP is so important;
you’re putting kids in a position where they have to talk to each other. PREP
is going to push them into working together. It’s the piece where we can
say, “OK, this is where they’re going to get the soft skills.”