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GUEST COMMENTARY | CARYL STERN: Want to build a more resilient education system? Engage the community

Engage community to bolster education system by CARYL M. STERN | September 27, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

For students across the country, this fall marks the third school year impacted by covid-19.

Kindergarteners are now second-graders. Sophomores are seniors. Despite all obstacles, learning – like time – marches on.

While the consequences of this generational disruption are still unfolding, Northwest Arkansas' deep and diverse bench of K-12 options produced impressive results. It also produced students and schools more resilient to the complex challenges of the future.

When the world shut down, I was just weeks into my new position as executive director of the Walton Family Foundation. As a newcomer to the region, I witnessed the can-do spirit that forged this community and how it stepped up for the children here.

Having a robust and responsive educational system played a key role.

From traditional to public charter to independent schools, education options in Northwest Arkansas expanded because of community-driven change – teachers, leaders and families who prioritized creating opportunity for the next generation.

Every student has a unique story. One belongs to Reyna Garcia, who graduated from Rogers Heritage High School this spring.

When Reyna moved to the United States from Mexico as an 11-year-old, her goal was to learn English. At 17, she earned acceptance to nearly every top university in the country and selected Harvard as the place to write her next chapter.

Reyna credits her academic success to the support her school community provided, from flexibility around her work schedule to counseling from Rogers Honors Academy, which helps public school students – many who are first-generation immigrants – and their families prepare for college admissions.

In Bentonville, Superintendent Dr. Debbie Jones' steady leadership steered the ship with decisions rooted in the best interest of her students and teachers. The public school system continues to provide a high-quality education to 18,000 students, alongside meals, mental health and special education services. Despite the pandemic, students became National Merit finalists, achieved perfect ACT scores and earned millions in scholarships.

The district is also preparing students for college and well-paying careers right out of high school through programs like Ignite Professional Studies, which helps participants explore workforce options and gain practical skills through real-world experience.

Jones believes this success is a result of building an inclusive school community where each student can reach their potential.

Thaden School, with its commitment to needs-based tuition, graduated its first class this spring. Seniors from all walks of life enrolled at some of the nation's finest universities, from USC and Wellesley to Tufts and Georgia Tech.

And across its multiple campuses, Haas Hall Academy was ranked the No. 1 public high school in Arkansas for the seventh year and the nation's ninth-best public charter school.

The last 19 months are proof that while we were prepared for the challenge, we are capable of even better things.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe Northwest Arkansas' continued growth and vibrancy depends on making a deeper commitment to inclusivity − ensuring all residents have access to the abundant opportunities, education included.

There is more work to do to support first-generation immigrants, families of color and low-income students. The effort should include spreading the word about existing school options and workforce and college prep programs and giving voice to community-led innovations.

Despite hard work and some progress, an achievement gap persists among students of color. Recent state math and reading assessments show that among the five largest districts in Northwest Arkansas, proficiency rates for Black and Hispanic students were 15 to 40 percentage points below those of white students.

Expanding opportunity to all students also requires recruiting a more robust and diverse pipeline of teachers. At Reyna's high school, 50% of students are Hispanic, but just over 4% of teachers share the same background. When students of color are taught by teachers who look like them, the result is higher expectations, lower discipline referral rates and better academic results.

I encourage you to raise your hand at the next school board meeting, offer an internship to local students or convene fellow educators to brainstorm how to fill gaps in student programming.

Barriers to opportunity remain that schools and teachers can't overcome alone. The region must unite to build innovative and community-driven solutions, no matter what the future holds.

Print Headline: Building resilience

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