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Pea Ridge, AR, district gives residents, businesses what they want – and need

Cross-section of community members embrace STEM/career approach as much as college

Published November 27, 2018

Additional Pea Ridge (AR) Public Schools articles:

Leadership Perspective

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 Pea Ridge?
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 this path?
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 High School.
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.”

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