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FORT SMITH -- Construction is underway of an education center that will be open for school districts across western Arkansas beginning next school year.

The Fort Smith School District, in collaboration with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, is preparing to open the Peak Innovation Center in August.

The first phase of the center will focus on programs in advanced manufacturing, information technology and health sciences, said Gary Udouj, director of career education and district innovation for the school district. There also will be some district-specific programming, such as visual arts for elementary school students.

The district, Udouj said, wanted to provide a school for the region where students could receive industry-recognized credentials in concurrent credit classes, as well as have "innovative approaches to education." This includes work-based learning, such as internships and apprenticeships, and working with business and industry to fill a skills gap identified by the district's Citizens Committee.

"We've got an aging workforce, we have millennials migrating elsewhere, and we've got basically an average age of 50 to 55 in some of these industries, and we really need to be preparing our students for those jobs," Udouj said.

The programs will include computer integrated machining, electronics technology, automation/robotics, network engineering technology, unmanned aerial systems, practical nursing and emergency medical responder, according to Udouj.

Udouj said the Peak Innovation Center will act as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center program at UAFS. The latter will provide the instructors and curriculum for each area.

Incoming school Superintendent Terry Morawski echoed Udouj on the center's programs.

"So, that center will continue to exist. It'll just offer ... complementary or different programming than Peak," Morawski said. "For example, there's an auto shop, there's a welding program at [Western Arkansas Technical], but that wouldn't be duplicated at Peak, so students would still attend those programs at [Western Arkansas Technical] on the UAFS campus."

Formed in 1998, the Western Arkansas Technical Center provides high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to earn college credit while still in high school, according to the UAFS website. Ken Warden, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology at UAFS, said the center serves all of the high schools in the Guy Fenter Education Service Cooperative, which encompasses 22 school districts in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan and Scott counties.

The Western Arkansas Technical Center offers technical training in several areas, Warden said. The Fort Smith district provides about one-third of the students at the center.

"Peak for us is an opportunity to leverage the investment of Fort Smith public schools to the benefit of programming for high school and adult students because we do plan to hold courses there for adult students when the facilities aren't being utilized by high school students, so that's a big deal," Warden said.

Warden said he believes that, with the size of the Fort Smith Metropolitan Statistical Area, it takes all parties involved leveraging the resources they each have to make this effort successful.

"It would be difficult for UAFS to offer this expanse and these robust opportunities without Fort Smith, and it would be difficult for Fort Smith public schools to do this without the university," Warden said. "But through the collective, through our industry partners, the community, the Fort Smith public schools investment, UA Fort Smith programming and investment, and all of the other school districts that are in the Guy Fenter co-op ... it's really a western Arkansas thing."

Warden said UAFS has a "very nicely neat career and academic pathway." Every class a student takes at the Peak center through the Western Arkansas Technical Center builds to a certificate, a two-year degree and directly to a four-year degree.

"So they can go from a certificate in high school and use that as part of an academic plan to get to a bachelor's degree and on to grad school if they choose," Warden said.

Udouj said the Fort Smith district continues to work with area companies for work-based learning opportunities, including internships, apprenticeships, field trips, and guest speakers.

"And really, we've used them as an advisory role for the planning of the center and we'll continue to use them for future planning," Udouj said. "They've really been part of a greater regional workforce development initiative."

Udouj said ABB, ArcBest, Arvest Bank, First National Bank of Fort Smith, Gerdau, Glatfelter, Ingersoll Rand, Rheem Manufacturing Co., WeatherBarr Windows & Doors, Mercy, Baptist Health, OK Foods and Fort Smith EMS have worked with the school district. The district also has been working closely with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Morawski said the school district took on a strategic planning process in fall 2017. From that, a desire grew to expand the career programs available for the district and to consider building a center like Peak. That information was presented to to a resident millage committee in spring 2018, with the project being selected to be part of an election for a millage increase for May of that year.

The millage increase, thanks to the approval of Fort Smith and Barling residents, moved the school property-tax rate by 5.558 mills from 36.5 to 42.058. It will generate about $120 million, and was the first of its kind in Fort Smith since 1987.

Morawski said at that point, the district began both the construction and planning process for the curriculum, working with UAFS and its business partners.

"And in the initial citizens millage program that was part of the election, we were planning for a 50,000- square-foot existing facility to be renovated," Morawski said. "We had a building donated that was over 180,000 square feet, and so that gave us quite a bit more space to work with and to dream about."

The building was donated by the estate of businessman William L. Hutcheson, according to Morawski. Christina Williams, coordinator of public information for the school district, said the School Board voted to accept the donation during its regular meeting Feb. 25, 2019.

Construction for the Peak center began this summer. A groundbreaking at 5900 Painter Lane was held on Dec. 7. Udouj said the center has a $20 million facility/equipment investment behind it, of which $13.7 million was set aside in the millage.

The school district went on to receive further grants and sponsorships for the center, including a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration; a $1 million grant from ABB, a global company with a site in Fort Smith; a $2.1 million grant from the Office of Skills Development of the Arkansas Department of Commerce; a $1 million grant from the California-based Gene Haas Foundation; and a $750,000 grant from the Windgate Foundation.

The learning space for phase one of the Peak Innovation Center will be about 80,000 square feet, according to a school district news release.

The facility itself is 160,000 square feet, with 17 acres for future expansion.

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