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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER Karterr Barlow, Siloam Springs High senior, works in the school’s machine tooling class Feb. 23 as part of the Career Academy.

High school students will have a growing number of options for gaining skills and earning workforce certifications over the next three years.

One of the latest efforts is a push to develop regional workforce centers through the joint efforts of school districts, community colleges and technical schools, cities and counties.

What’s next? Districts share plans

Springdale’s third high school

SPRINGDALE — In 2020, the second class of seniors will be graduating from the Don Tyson School of Innovation.

The school follows a model of personalized education that gives students flexibility to move through coursework at their own pace.

Students in what is becoming the Springdale School District’s third high school choose from seven career study paths, Principal Joe Rollins said. They have options to earn workforce certificates, participate in internships and finish high school with both a diploma and as much as a two-year associate’s degree from Northwest Arkansas Community College, Rollins said.

The School of Innovation over the next two years will become an eighth- through 12th-grade campus with about 1,000 students. The school adds to programs emphasizing careers at Springdale High School and Har-Ber High School.

Springdale High School has offered career academies for years, and the campus is building on programs for students interested in teaching and in culinary arts, Rollins said. Har-Ber High School has organized its student body into houses that emphasize broad interests, such as arts, technology and communication, and architecture, construction and manufacturing, he said.

Ignite program adds strands

BENTONVILLE — What began with 16 students interested in information technology careers will grow to 200 students in eight career strands in the fall, said Teresa Hudson, director of the Ignite Professional Studies program in the Bentonville School District.

The strands are competitive, with the medical and health sciences drawing 60 students for 20 spots this school year and 100 applying for 40 spots next school year, she said. Medical and health science students do rotations in hospitals and clinics, and 18 of the 20 students this year earned their phlebotomy certification. The other two earned a pharmacy technician certificate.

Hudson said she anticipates a greater outreach this spring to invite students from other western Benton County school districts to participate in the Ignite program.

By 2020, Hudson hopes to add more depth to the eight career strands, such as providing biomedical engineering and nursing tracks, she said

Push for regional center

GRAVETTE — Superintendent Richard Page thinks it’s possible for a regional workforce development center to open in 2019 because Act 509 of 2017 authorizes the creation and operation of the center.

The Gravette, Bentonville, Decatur and Gentry school districts formed a consortium that allows students to attend career education programs in any of the four districts, Page said.

“This legislation allows us to pool our money together to have the power to offer more than what we could ever do for ourselves,” Page said.

Northwest Technical Institute, with its main campus in Springdale, provides the welding instructor in Gravette. It’s one of three satellites the institute will continue next school year. The others are in Rogers and Farmington.

The institute has offered a dental assisting program for high school students in Fayetteville that will move next school year to Farmington, President Blake Robertson said. The institute also will offer criminal justice classes and is seeking approval from state officials to add an introductory machining program and an information technology program that will focus on computer networks and computer languages.

The institute’s programs for high school students draw about 300 students, but that number is expected to grow with the development of one or more regional centers, Robertson said.

Responding to projected demand for workers

ROGERS — A renovation of the school district’s career center on the Rogers Heritage High School campus will finish in August, said Dawn Stewart, director of career and technical education for the district.

The center will retain its automotive service technology, advanced manufacturing and machine tools, construction technology, and vocational agriculture shops, Stewart said. The renovation will provide increased training and certification opportunities, she said.

The district added a construction technology program this school year, Stewart said. The program’s first level focuses on construction skills and leads students through curriculum to earn industry-recognized certificates from the National Center for Construction Education and Research and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The program will include carpentry next school year and mechanical, plumbing, electrical and heating-and-air-conditioning training in the 2018-19 school year, she said.


High school career and technical education programs have not received this much attention since the 1960s and 1970s, said Charles Cudney, a former school superintendent who is now executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative.

"Career and technical education has moved from the back of the bus to the front of the bus," Cudney said.

It's an issue supported by the Northwest Arkansas Council and Walton Family Foundation.

Gaining momentum

Business leaders and educators began working closer together following a meeting three years ago organized by Cheryl Pickering, career and technical education coordinator for the Education Cooperative. The meeting drew 150 business leaders and educators from high schools and higher education institutions.

The region was recovering from the recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009, and businesses were expecting a shortage of skilled workers, Cudney said.

Northwest Arkansas' metro area unemployment rate dropped to 2.7 percent in December, compared with rates of 4.6 percent and 5.7 percent in December 2008 and 2009, respectively, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Metropolitan Statistica Area includes Benton, Washington and Madison counties in Arkansas and McDonald County in Missouri.

"The interest from business and industry and the interest from educators was at a point where each side would listen," Cudney said.

Superintendents, including those of the Farmington, Gentry, Gravette and Pea Ridge school districts, have discussed their concerns about making sure they provide opportunities to significant portions of their graduating classes each year who don't go to college.

While educators and business leaders are actively working on projects related to workforce education in high schools, attention is turning toward how to market the new options to parents and students, Cudney said.

The focus of career and technical education programs is equipping students with skills needed in advanced manufacturing plants and in technical jobs that are high paying and in high demand, he said.

"You can go through high school and have opportunities for career and technical training and also go to college," he said.

The Career Academy of Siloam Springs is in its second year on the high school campus. Students are in a pre-apprenticeship industrial maintenance mechanic program, said Mike Rogers, industrial maintenance teacher in Siloam Springs. The building housing the academy cost $2.4 million, with half the money coming from industry partners.

Rogers remembers when career and technical education was thought of as dirty, lower level work involving manual labor, he said. Global competition has led to changes in manufacturing with cleaner, brighter facilities, increased automation and robotics, and higher paying jobs.

Regional projects

School districts in western Benton County created a consortium to offer options to their students, and a new law authorizes the creation and operation of a regional workforce development center authority.

Gravette High School offers welding and heating and air-conditioning programs that are open to students from nearby districts, said Gravette Superintendent Richard Page.

The new law allows multiple districts to join technical schools, some universities and community colleges, cities and counties to pay for a regional center, Page said.

He said if all the details fall into place, including the creation of a regional workforce development center authority, a center for Benton County students could open as early as fall 2019.

School districts likely will continue programs they started on their campuses, but they also could chip in for new programs, including health sciences, automotive technology and aviation mechanics, Page said. The programs would be open to students from entities in the workforce development center authority.

"We've been talking about this four or five years," Page said. "It's our responsibility to make sure a kid graduates with choices in life and being able to have opportunities to have a career."

Meeting workforce needs

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization of business and civic leaders, hired consultants to better understand the gaps that exist between the skills area employers need and the training those entering the workforce receive, particularly in high school, said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer and interim president and chief executive officer for the council.

Consultants from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, headquartered in Chicago, spent more than a year studying workforce supply and demand and presented the report in December.

The report was a first blush attempt at trying to identify categories of career and technical education that school districts could consider offering to increase student enrollment because they link to high-demand occupations, said Jade Arn, senior consultant for the consulting firm. Some of the top categories were agriculture, food and natural resources; business, management and administration; hospitality and tourism; and transportation, distribution and logistics, she said.

The consultants based their work on 2013-14 state records of high school career and technical education programs, the projected hiring needs of area employers and other date, including federal statistics and surveys from school districts, Arn said.

Recommendations will include improving the option to allow students to earn industry certifications while finishing high school, Harvey said.

The findings need to be studied further and refined over the next few months with feedback from school districts and businesses, Arn said.

Discussions at regional meetings have requested better guidance for students and their families about options for careers and the training required, Arn said. A web-based tool to assist in that effort is being developed.

Interest is building around providing work experiences for students through internships and opportunities for teachers to learn more about the jobs of area businesses through externships, she said.

"There are so many different strategies and tactics that have emerged that will make a difference in terms of getting students in the pipeline of careers important to the area," Arn said.

Exploring options

Partnerships and conversations between educators and business leaders have existed at the local level, but they are receiving attention on a regional level as a result of a strategy the Northwest Arkansas Council adopted in 2010. The strategy called attention to the need to improve education, said Kim Davis, Walton Family Foundation senior program officer for education in the home region. Davis is the former director of education and workforce development for the council.

The council and the foundation during the 2015-16 school year paid for a delegation of school leaders from Northwest Arkansas to travel to regional career and technical education centers in other parts of the country, Davis said.

The foundation has taken an interest because of its goal of creating a world class school system in Northwest Arkansas, Davis said.

The foundation also supports the Ignite Professional Studies program in the Bentonville School District that began with a focus on information technology careers, Davis said. The program attracted students with varying levels of academic performance gave them experience in workplaces.

"In order to create a world class system of schools, there has to be a variety of options available," he said.

The hope is for students to gain career skills in high school that includes the option to continue building skills and knowledge in programs at technical schools, community colleges and universities, Harvey said.

He's supporting a push for schools to have greater flexibility in hiring instructors from industry and in giving students room in their high school schedules to pursue workforce credentials.

"We live in a different environment now," Harvey said. "There's so much available to kids."

NW News on 03/26/2017

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