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Pulaski County's four school districts and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce are enlisting an arm of the Ford Motor Co. to explore the possibility of a coordinated, community-connected, career-focused approach to education in each of the districts' 10 high schools.

The Ford Next Generation Learning initiative -- a team from which will begin Tuesday to assess Pulaski County's high schools -- was established more than a dozen years ago by the Ford Motor Co. Fund.

The career academy model that pairs traditional academics with 21st century project-based learning and real-world problem-solving is now in place or in various stages of implementation in as many as 40 communities, including Nashville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and in the United Kingdom.

"I think this has a chance to be transformational for the districts in this county and more importantly for the students that they serve," Kevin Crass, chairman of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Friday at a news conference to announce the first stage -- the exploratory study -- of what could be a five-stage process.

"In the end -- and this is why the chamber gets involved -- it can serve the businesses in this community and the community as a whole," Crass said about the model. "That is the common goal that we are all after."

In the first stage -- to be funded with contributions from Pulaski County-area businesses through the chamber -- a Ford Next Generation Learning team will visit high schools in the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County Special, and Jacksonville/North Pulaski districts that together serve more than 45,000 students.

Team members will talk with district and school leaders, teachers, parents, students, and business and civic representatives to determine the status of already existing college- and career-preparation education in the schools and districts.

Ultimately, the team will make recommendations on how the four school systems and chamber leaders might shape career-focused education in a way that involves local businesses to engage students in learning.

Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said in an interview that Ford Next Generation Learning staff believe there is much good already occurring in the schools in terms of student preparation for college and careers.

But expansion of those efforts is necessary "so that we are impacting thousands and tens of thousands" of students "instead of tens and one hundreds. And, in doing so, become districts of choice for the whole region and not just for one county," Chesshir added.

Existing offerings include the longstanding Metropolitan Career Technical Education Center in the Little Rock district, the much newer Center of Excellence charter school in North Little Rock and the Driven blended digital and traditional instruction model in the Pulaski County Special district. There are also the magnet school programs that feature special instruction in arts, science and international studies in Little Rock, and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs in the districts.

"The assumption is that good work is already going on," said James Reddish, the executive vice president of the chamber who was hired a year ago in part for his experiences in working with the Ford Next Generation Learning model in Louisville. "The assumption is that it's just not at scale and it's just not at connected," Reddish said about existing programs that fall short of the 200 to 250 students typically needed to make academies economically feasible.

The Ford Next Generation Learning team is expected to identify existing successful programs, suggest tweaks and propose areas for additional work and resources -- drawing on what they have seen throughout the country, he said.

Kristi Barr, the chamber's director of workforce development and education, said she anticipates that the team assessment will include information on the labor demand in Pulaski County so that career-themed academies at the different schools can align with job opportunities.

"They may say 'you need five health care programs throughout the county' or 'you may need only one construction program based on the labor demand here,'" Barr said. "We are looking for them to provide some of that kind of feedback to us."

Chesshir said any development of the academy model at the schools would be the result of "uber local control" in that local educators and community members would be the ones to decide what college and career programs to establish, how many programs to establish at a campus and even what to call the academies.

He also said he believes the model is sustainable and won't fold as principals, superintendents and instructors come and go in the county's school systems.

Cheryl Carrier, the executive director of Ford Next Generation Learning, said in an interview that Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Co., built vocational schools. Education innovation is in the company's DNA, Carrier said.

She said the benefits of bringing business and community members to the table as part of the effort to tie academics to real-world problem-solving can be beneficial not only for students but for an entire community.

"If students are graduating at higher rates and they have a better idea of what they want to do with their futures, and they are graduating with certifications and the ability to go into post-secondary or right into high-skill, high-wage jobs, they are going to improve the workforce," Carrier said. "And that leads to community prosperity."

Next week's visit to the Pulaski County-area high schools by the Ford Next Generation Learning team comes after several months of study by chamber officials and Pulaski County school district leaders, Chesshir said.

That included a visit to the Nashville's nine high schools late last year by representatives of the chamber, the four districts and the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College. The Ford Next Generation Learning framework subsequently was presented to the high school principals and other faculty in the school systems and to the school boards in three of the four districts as well as to the Community Advisory Board in the state-controlled Little Rock district.

Chesshir cited statistics from Nashville as a reason to consider the model for Pulaski County. Thirteen years ago, the Nashville system had a 58 percent high school graduation rate. That has improved to 84 percent, he said, while the average age of a gang member in that community has increased from 16 to 22 as that district's educational program has become more relevant and engaging to students.

Superintendents Mike Poore of Little Rock, Bobby Acklin of North Little Rock, Bryan Duffie of Jacksonville/North Pulaski and Charles McNulty of Pulaski County Special attended Friday's news conference about the upcoming assessment of the schools and spoke in support of the potential for an innovative, multidistrict initiative and the ability to share resources and avoid duplication.

"This is not business as usual," McNulty said. "We are asking for a group fix. We are asking for the leadership in this room to change the direction for young people.

"We are asking ... to walk on roads and pathways we haven't walked before," he said, adding that he was honored to be part of the effort.

The business community wants to walk hand-in-hand with the school districts through the process, Chesshir said, so that students already in the districts and those who come in the future will have an unsurpassed education.

More information about the Ford Next Generation Learning framework is on the chamber's website: littlerockchamber.com/ngl.

Metro on 01/12/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas districts enlisting initiative by Ford; team to assess career education in high schools

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