Innovation green light

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Trump administration’s education department will be quick to reward outside-the-box thinking. But it’s far from obvious to entrenched bureaucrats or legislators.

If Betsy DeVos is anything, she’s as anti-establishment as her boss (that’s why everyone in the education establishment opposed her). And yet, just like him, here she is.

And here we are:

In a prime position to seize an immense opportunity, if—admittedly an enormous “if”—our own state government leaders are adventuresome enough to live up to our old state nickname.

It’s been 13 years since the infamous Act 60 was pushed through our Legislature. It passed despite broad warning signs and red flags at the time from a state mirroring us in many ways (West Virginia), which was taking measure of its own consolidation failings 10 years after the fact.

In those ensuing years a lot has changed—politically, technologically, educationally.

Electorally we were among deep red states. Broadband penetration and all that it enables is reaching the most rural of areas. And nobody really disputes all the broken promises (lower costs, better test scores, etc.) of consolidation.

We took the “opportunity” motto off our license plates a long time ago, but it’s still spelled the same way.

If Education Secretary DeVos’ head could ever be turned by a powerful prospective pet project, it would be a well-planned blueprint for a statewide Rural Public School System. Not a patchwork approach that seeks to semi-urbanize schools out in the hinterlands. One that is specifically designed to maximize the unique characteristics of rural lifestyles with newly accessible modern learning technology.

Our population has been crying out for such a solution for decades. We’re nowhere near the most rural state, but still a decidedly rural one. Only 17 of our 75 counties are considered urban. Our economy is powered by agriculture.

But as recently as 2010, our state board of education bungled the chance to pioneer a distance-learning consolidation concept between Delight and Weiner. Both schools had high test scores, great graduation rates and tremendous community support, but also an enrollment figure below Act 60’s magically irrelevant number.

So naturally both had to be shut down.

Fortunately, many of the masterminds behind Act 60 have moved on from public service. The question is, has the failed mindset moved on as well?

Closed minds brought us nothing but closed schools, and barely moved any needles on student performance metrics. Open minds can launch us into the national limelight if we simply insist on innovative thinking for rural education from a totally rural perspective.

Samsung Electronics is repurposing 40-foot shipping containers into mobile classrooms for sub-Saharan countries to improve their education. Each serves up to 21 students, and is equipped with a 50-inch electronic board, Internet-enabled solar-powered notebooks, multifunction printers, Samsung Galaxy tablet computers and Wi-Fi cameras. A solar-panel roof generates nine hours of electricity a day, since many African communities have minimal power available, if any.

But our solution for remote rural communities continues to be rooted in 1960s-era busing of outlying students to expensive brick-and-mortar structures in larger population concentrations?

The enemy of innovation isn’t really backward thinking (which at least incorporates thought), it’s inertia. The need for better education ideas in rural communities isn’t new, but developments in broadband, smartphones and tablets, applications and programs, distance-learning, video-streaming and other connectivity and telecommunications products and services are.

Rural 12-year-olds today know more about technology than college grad students did a couple of generations ago.

In the not-too-distant past, the average kid in rural Arkansas had zero access to East or West Coast fashions, fads, shopping, trends, songs, menus or entertainment. All those divides, and more, have evaporated in the cyberspace revolution. The Coach bag that was once purchased exclusively on Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive can now arrive in Nowhere, USA, in two days from Amazon.

Likewise with access to the latest schooling techniques, concepts, teachers, technology partnerships and information content. The finest lectures and speakers on anything are available on YouTube.

The reason to not use a television series like Legends and Lies: Patriots to help teach students about American independence isn’t because “we’ve never done it like that.” It’s because those kinds of tools and technology never existed before.

And now that they are now proliferating, we must push our thinking to expand even faster.

We have some wonderful organizations across the state already in place—the Rural Community Alliance comes to my mind first, but there are also others—to serve as effective, enabling collaborators on a rural initiative needed not only here in Arkansas, but in other states from Montana to Maine.

Task forces too often produce neither task nor force, but maybe that’s a start, providing it comprises fresh, non-establishment minds. Even the best-intentioned capital-city thinking is simply incapable of grass-roots inventiveness on rural education.

Four out of 10 Arkansans live rural lives. As suddenly and surprisingly as last Nov. 8, those rural communities represent possibly the best laboratories for profound shifts in teaching.

Rural education is a national challenge. It’s carpe diem time, and Arkansas ought to be a natural.


D.O. done right

This morning, the inaugural class of the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University held its first White Coat Ceremony in Jonesboro.

The celebratory ritual marked more than just a rite-of-passage student transition from pre-clinical study to clinical health sciences. It also highlighted the first Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) medical school in the state, born of a unique private-public partnership that not only saved as much as $50 million in development costs, but also launched the school without additional tax-fund requirements.

Most importantly, the NYIT and A-State joint venture creates a crux at which health education investment aligns directly with an area of great medical needs. The counties bordering the Mississippi River in Northeast Arkansas have some of the highest incidences of chronic illness in the state—and their population is woefully underserved by doctors.

On Monday I got a chance to tour the new D.O. school, which is housed in the spectacularly renovated and updated Wilson Hall on the A-State campus.

The juxtaposition is just amazing: the circa-1932 stately facade and original art deco architecture, sporting an ultra-advanced, state-of-the-art interior that looks like the sick bay in Star Trek‘s Enterprise starship. It splendidly marries past and future, legacy and modernity.

Interior walls were removed, and the electrical and forced-air systems reworked, to transform traditional classroom spaces into specialized simulation emergency and operating rooms, clinical learning rooms, an anatomy lab and much more.

The training of M.D. and D.O. students is essentially the same, but the osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) lab highlights the additional principles and practices taught in D.O. schools, which regard the body as an interrelated, dynamic unit of function and structure with an innate healing ability.

The OMM lab is visually stunning when empty; in a few days it will be teeming with enthusiastic physicians-in-training who will transform the region’s health-care landscape much like their school has transformed Wilson Hall.

It’s fitting that the first new medical school in the state in over a century, unveiled in an historic university landmark, is also among the most technologically advanced. Every student is issued a souped-up iPad on which lectures, textbooks and myriad other class and study information is housed. In lounges, break rooms and study areas all over the school, large HD televisions are embedded with Apple TV connectivity and “airplay” so students can wirelessly congregate and collaborate.

The classrooms are marvels of modern advancements, with touchscreens driving large TV monitors that can display incredibly detailed anatomical data in the highest-definition resolution.

I fondly remember watching plays in the old Wilson auditorium, with its theater-red velvet seating. In its place now is an expansive lecture hall, laid out with sleek workspace tables facing an enormous screen (not as big as those seen at the recent political conventions, but close) onto which live links with instructors in New York can be streamed real-time.

The basement section where students used to eat and gather near the jukebox in the old Wigwam is now a gleaming, uber-connected example of innovative renovation. It’s a second lecture hall, sizable enough to accommodate all the students in an entire medical class, which will be a necessity when the next wave of students enrolls in 2017. Thanks to strategic HDTV placements, every seat has a great view even though structural support columns had to remain in place.

The debut D.O. class is a full-slate 120 students, with a waiting list of 150 more. Even more notably, half of those students hail from Arkansas. And osteopathic school statistics are definitive: students from non-urban areas who attend medical schools nearby tend to stay and practice in the same areas.

Digital connectivity is the enabler of remote learning, and walking through the new D.O. school and hearing about the cascading tiers of connection, it became clear this is a seminal education event. Major telecom providers collaborated to provide a direct fiber-optic line to link the Jonesboro and New York campuses, and the latest wireless and touchscreen integrated technology connects students with classrooms, lessons, training and textbook data.

A couple of decades ago, all this would have been little more than a wishful dream. The fact that it’s now a highly functional reality—that rural Arkansas medical students are hard-wired to Manhattan physician-professors in a full-service post-graduate program—indicates the potential to also transform rural K-12 public education.

A couple of decades from now (maybe sooner), schools in small towns could be using the same digital connectivity to link to urban campuses, and sharing specialty teachers and courses instead of having to expensively replicate them for smaller student populations.

State investments in education could be spread further among all districts, creating more access to better curricula while also preserving small schools—and their towns.

Imagine harnessing the most ardent education advocates in each small community behind a new, innovative vision of learning technology that erases geographic isolation as a barrier.

Vision, teamwork and community built the fabulous new D.O. school in Jonesboro. The same ingredients can also build a fantastic rural education system in Arkansas.

Rural life matters

I had my first visit to Eudora on Saturday.

On the way down, I also got my first glimpse of the nation’s largest oxbow lake.

It had to be centuries ago when the Mississippi River diverted along a shorter eastward route, leaving the 22-mile crescent of land-locked water that would become Lake Chicot.

Chicot County is tucked into the southeast corner of Arkansas, with the muddy waters of Old Man River lapping at its eastern boundary and the Louisiana state line bordering the south.

That geography suggests a rich soil well-suited for crops, and the county is a perennial leader in cotton production.

Eudora’s population has dwindled census by census, but it still boasts more than 2,000 souls, and its own Grand Lake is a prime fishing destination.

I was surprised at all the water in the area, though it explained the nomenclature of the county seat and Lakeport Plantation (which I highly recommend to preservationists and lay tourists alike—it not only has antebellum beauty, scale and dimension, but is also a fascinating study in historical restoration techniques).

I also got to view and traverse the 1,378-foot cable-stayed bridge linking Lake Village and Greenville, Mississippi. Its soaring pyramidal profile—four-strand steel-cable fans connecting two concrete towers—gleams in contrast to the level, leafy farmland below.

It was the fourth-largest bridge of its type in North America when opened in 2010.

The occasion for my visit wasn’t sightseeing, however. The site of the annual meeting of the Rural Community Alliance (RCA) shifts every year, and this year the host town was Eudora, and there I joined more than 110 other local advocates for Arkansas’ small communities.

The RCA session was even more inspiring than the sights and tours.

Gathered in a restored building on Eudora’s Main Street, regular people from the organization’s 65 chapters across the state shared their accomplishments and ideas in support of a collective vision of giving rural Arkansans greater access to education and economic opportunity.

The Alliance organizes its chapters among four state quadrants, and at one point the large group broke out to brainstorm local planning initiatives by district groupings.

I grabbed some unshelled peanuts (many thanks to the Eudora hosts for some great snacks) and joined members of the Delta district who pulled tables into a U-shape.

The RCA district organizer led the input discussion, and one lady wrote consensus ideas down on giant sticky-note posters.

I was struck by the same stirring essence the colonists must have felt in their town-hall meetings when the Republic was new.

Here were no high-and-mighty politicians, no lavishly funded PACs or system-savvy lobbyists. No hidden agendas, no pretense or pandering for votes. These were real people with a heart for giving their time and energy in a deliberate and determined effort to make their small slice of America a better place to raise kids and earn a living.

In focus-group fashion, the four regional groups were abuzz with ideas to create more active, involved and prosperous local communities.

It was during this breakout discussion that one man made a galvanizing remark.

“Rural life matters,” he said, nodding his head with conviction at each word. That’s a concept all too often lost in general policymaking at the state capital, and across the country.

Nationally one in five Americans lives in a rural area, but here in Arkansas the figure is more than twice that (44 percent).

Moreover, rural living is becoming a calculated choice for more and more people who assess urban pros and cons and find the balance wanting.

Independent studies have confirmed the health benefits of country life, clean air and interacting with nature. The latest is from Stanford University, which built on earlier research demonstrating that people who sauntered through trees and grass were happier afterward, and sought to examine the neurological causes behind the positive mood shifts.

In the Stanford study, researchers identified improved mental states in participants who walked down a serene nature path, as opposed to those who strolled next to traffic.

The worry set for rural residents is different from urbanites as well. One recent survey listed crime as the number one issue of concern for city-dwellers, while rural populations are most concerned with jobs.

Rural life is also realizing transformations through technology. High-speed broadband penetration is connecting rural families to opportunities in medical, mercantile and educational situations that were impossible a decade ago.

Consequently, there’s never been a better time to be a rural community seeking to revitalize.

It’s an era in which imagination needs to be unfurled to the winds of innovation. Advances we don’t even know about yet will yield solutions—as long as people like those gathered in Eudora remain committed and vibrant.

That’s the dynamic driving the Rural Community Alliance’s growth (the number of local communities represented has increased by nearly 50 percent since 2009).

It’s easy to look at struggling rural areas and see only their problems.

On Saturday, I saw genuine, grass-roots government of, by and for the people at work. It gave me goosebumps in balmy July.