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Year after year, Northwest Arkansas has received high marks for its growing economy, affordability and expanding trail network. In 2017 alone, the region was named one of the best places to live by U.S. News & World Report and Outside Magazine. But what about our schools? Four out of five of the state's best high schools are located here. And just this May, Education Week named Bentonville the nation's best city for K-12 teachers. As Northwest Arkansas continues to attract talent from all over the world, we must ensure our education system is not only able to compete locally and nationally, but internationally. To accomplish this goal, we must continue to expand high-quality education options across all sectors: traditional districts, public charters and independent schools.

Progress is already well underway. Take the Rogers Honors Academy as an example. Created by Rogers Public Schools with support from the Walton Family Foundation, this program was designed to provide the individualized support and college preparation students need to gain admittance to top-performing colleges and universities across the U.S. The Academy amplifies its impact by targeting traditionally underserved students such as those of color, English-language learners and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We're also seeing strong results from our partner, the Ignite Program in Bentonville Public Schools. Through college-level courses, internships and mentoring, this program is giving junior and senior high school students real-life experiences that will benefit them in high-skill, in-demand jobs in the future.

Similar innovation is taking place across other education sectors. Thaden School, opening this fall in downtown Bentonville, will combine an original curriculum and high academic standards with small classes and a diverse faculty recruited from across the U.S. Teachers will employ seminar-style teaching, hands-on experiential learning, creative interaction with the arts and outdoors and community-based projects. This curriculum will spur students' passion for learning and give them opportunities to connect their studies to the region and the world. Accessibility will be promoted through an indexed tuition program, which will help families with modest or limited financial resources.

The region's positive momentum continues this fall as Haas Hall Academy, one of the state and nation's highest-ranked schools, opens new campuses in Rogers and Springdale. Since it was established, Haas Hall has described itself as a "functioning microcosm of a university," achieving college and graduate acceptance rates of 100 percent. Its two new facilities, located in the historic Lane Hotel in downtown Rogers and the Jones Center in downtown Springdale, will offer these cities' diverse populations improved access to an additional high-achieving school. With four campuses now in Northwest Arkansas, Haas Hall can now offer its award-winning, rigorous college preparatory curriculum to hundreds more students throughout the region.

So, what's next? As we've done in the past with the region's trails and mass transit system, we will learn from others across the country and globe and then apply these best practices locally. Through the University of Arkansas' Office of Innovation, we are supporting a two-year professional development opportunity for a delegation of educators from Northwest Arkansas' traditional districts, public charters and independent schools. The program will include a study tour to New Zealand, a world leader when it comes to innovation in the classroom. Educators will have the chance to conduct site visits, learn from high-performing schools and interact with international education experts so they can discover how to better collaborate across sectors and districts at home. This experience will give them the tools to implement lessons learned and work together to continuously improve the region's education system.

It's clear Northwest Arkansas is expanding families' access to high-quality education options. And we can't slow down now. If we want to ensure our schools are truly among the best, then we must continue to support innovation and outstanding outcomes across all sectors of the education system. Let's not only push for good schools, but exceptional schools.

Commentary on 08/18/2017

Print Headline: Aiming for A+ schools

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