Northwest Arkansas teachers have been selected to participate in training to help shape statewide educational policies.
Seven teachers from Northwest Arkansas will join 20 others this month to focus on a range of issues of importance to Arkansas' teachers, students and families, said Stacey McAdoo. McAdoo is director of the program, called Arkansas Teach Plus.
Teach Plus will empower teachers to address issues that impact student success, she said.
"Some of those issues may be at the local level; others may be state or federal level," McAdoo said. "The way the leadership roles will manifest themselves can be in a variety of ways -- including providing recommendations and contacting, meeting and working with legislators, policymakers and other stakeholders."
The organization was founded in 2009 by educator Celine Coggins.
"Her mission and vision was to empower and equip educators to take leadership positions or to advocate for policy and practices," McAdoo said. "It's a bottoms-up movement."
Mississippi teachers from the program have met with U.S. Senate offices in support of federal stimulus funds to address the impact of covid-19, according to the Teach Plus website. Indiana teachers successfully advanced legislation to improve teacher preparation, inform teacher retention and enable expanded opportunities for Indiana educators, according to the website.
Arkansas' Teach Plus participants were selected in June from about 40 applicants, McAdoo said. The selection process included a written application, individual and group interviews and a task applicants had to complete.
"The work is rooted in what the teachers in that particular location consider to be important issues to their students or the profession," McAdoo said of the meetings. "Most of the states are focused on work that's engaged in advocacy on a lot of the same issues, such as equitable school funding, diversifying the teacher pipeline and creating systems that support the whole child."
Recruiting and retaining teachers of color is of particular concern for Arkansas, she said.
"I think we have a lot of room to grow in recruiting a more diverse teaching staff," said Holly Howard, a Bentonville High School English teacher and one of the program's teachers. "We are tasked with educating all students, and we need to create a more inclusive environment for all students to receive an equitable education."
Youth of color made up 40% of the Arkansas public school student population in 2020, according to Greater Than Diamonds: Recommendations on Improving Teacher Diversity in Arkansas, a report from Teach Plus Teacher Policy Advisory Board. In the same year, only 12% of teachers identified as teachers of color. Out of 262 public school districts in Arkansas, 68 didn't have a single teacher of color employed as a teacher of record for the 2020-2021 school year, according to the report.
It's important for students to learn in diverse environments, said Brandie Loomis, an academic coach at Centerton Gamble Elementary in the Bentonville School District who will be a Teach Plus teacher this year.
"We owe it to our students to create culturally diverse opportunities so that our students can learn from people with different backgrounds and upbringings," Loomis said. "That will ultimately lead to increased innovation, collaboration and empathy."
Arkansas Teach Plus participants include nine Black, one Asian, one biracial, two Hispanic and seven white teachers, McAdoo said.
"They're diverse racially, but they're also diverse in terms of location," she said, noting the teachers represent rural and urban communities across the state, charter and traditional schools and schools of different sizes.
Learning to advocate
Teach Plus began in Boston in 2009, McAdoo said. The nonprofit now has programs in 12 states with about 780 teachers participating annually. It began its efforts in Arkansas with an advisory board last school year, she said.
Kara Davis, literacy facilitator at Northside Elementary School in Rogers, participated in the advisory committee and will serve as one of the three senior policy fellows to help provide support and guidance to program teachers as they learn to navigate education policies, she said.
"One specific lesson that I have learned is just how powerful your voice can be," Davis said. "Many times, teachers think that they don't have power, that no one will listen or that the experiences they bring don't have value. Teach Plus gives teachers the tools to use their voice in a powerful way."
Program teachers initially will meet monthly via teleconferencing, McAdoo said, but will shift to in-person meetings in Little Rock once it's feasible to do so safely during the covid-19 pandemic.
Training will allow teachers to understand how policy is made, how it affects the classroom and how to create opportunities to change and influence policies at the school, district and state level, according to the Teach Plus website.
The teachers will meet for the first time virtually Friday through Sunday and will discuss topics that include the paths of teachers as policy influencers, storytelling for impact, the qualities of good policymaking and how to analyze bills through the lens of equity and effectiveness, McAdoo said.
"I'm excited to learn more about educational policy, to connect with teachers from across the state and to help teachers' voices be heard by our community members, our school administration and our local political leaders," Howard said.
Loomis said she's also interested in learning how to sharpen her skills in policy and advocacy at a larger scale than just her school district.
"I want to become a better advocate for teachers to use their voices for change, whether it be at their school, district or state level," she said.
Participation in the program is free for teachers and is provided through donations to Teach Plus, McAdoo said. Teach Plus is funded primarily by donors.
Teacher policies shouldn't be created without the voice of educators, she said.
"It only makes sense that teachers are included in conversations about policy and practice as it relates to student success and helping to build an equitable education system," McAdoo said. "It's a win-win for all of Arkansas, not just for educators."
Teach Plus participants
The 2021-22 Arkansas Policy Fellows:
• Perla Andrade, Baseline Elementary School, Little Rock
• Kayla Andrews, Benton High School
• Allison Bibens, Bale Elementary School, Little Rock
• Melanie Blasingame, West Elementary Academy, Little Rock
• Dominique Bonilla, Springdale High School
• Crystal Eckles, Future School of Fort Smith
• Michael Flowers, Mills University Studies High School, Little Rock
• Chase Fresneda, Nemo Vista High School, Center Ridge
• Iesha Green, Exalt Academy of Southwest Little Rock
• Deon Harris, Forrest City High School
• Juanita Harris, Harmony Leadership Academy, Texarkana
• Matthew Henriksen, Haas Hall Academy, Springdale
• Holly Howard, Bentonville High School
• Kendria Jones, Jack Robey Junior High School, Pine Bluff
• Nelvia Johnson, Delta Collegiate High School, Helena
• Brandie Loomis, Centerton Gamble Elementary School
• Romana Mathews, Forrest City High School
• Jessica Nadzam, The Academies at Jonesboro High School
• Cade Vallee, East Junior High School, West Memphis
• Morgan Wilson, Pine Bluff High School
2021-2022 Teach Plus Arkansas Senior Policy Fellows:
• Pamela Criss, Little Rock School District
• Kara Davis, Northside Elementary School, Rogers
• Christhian Saavedra, Heritage High School, Rogers
Source: Teach Plus