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.


Small school, big honor

Years ago, I suggested the state try to replicate small-school Weiner’s formula for success in every district. By every performance measure—average ACT, graduation rate, benchmark scores, AP participation—Weiner posted high marks, at a per pupil cost thousands of dollars below larger districts.

The only deficiency at Weiner was that student enrollment fell ever-so-slightly below the state’s arbitrary number for a couple of years. Ironically, in the year it was consolidated, Weiner’s enrollment had rebounded to exceed the minimum 350 students.

Shortly after Weiner became part of the Harrisburg district, the storied high school—whose 126-year history never included any academic or financial distress—was closed.

Fortunately, Weiner Elementary School remained open, and continues in its high-performing tradition. In recognition, Weiner Elementary was one of only 14 rural schools, out of 243 total elementary schools, named as a National Blue Ribbon Award Winner this year.

As always, overachievement is Weiner’s educational hallmark.

Statistically and demographically speaking, it’s unlikely for Weiner Elementary to rise to a National Blue Ribbon standard from its humble rural Arkansas roots. Only 8.9 percent of Poinsett County residents have a college degree. The median household income is nearly 25 percent less, and the poverty rate more than 30 percent higher, than neighboring Craighead County. Some 82 percent of Weiner Elementary’s students are considered economically disadvantaged–a higher percentage than any other rural school on the winners’ list.

And yet Weiner Elementary’s 16-page Blue Ribbon Award application reads like the kind of highly progressive, high-tech profile you’d expect from a prosperous suburban school.

Even many large rural elementary schools, like Southwest Calloway Elementary in Kentucky (whose 469 K-5 enrollment dwarfs Weiner’s 125 K-6 number), proudly tout the fact that all students have “access” to class-room Chromebooks.

Every single student at Weiner Elementary is assigned an individual device; in K-2 it’s an iPad, in grades 3 and 4 it’s a Chromebook, and fifth- and sixth-grade students are all toting around their own MacBook Air laptops. Weiner Elementary was designated an Arkansas “School of Innovation” in that program’s first year following its adoption by the Legislature in 2013.

Schools of Innovation are allowed waivers from certain rules, provided they can demonstrate and present new ideas that improve academic performance for students. And innovate is what Weiner Elementary has done in true blue-ribbon fashion.

Digital connectivity is maximized to enable and enhance communication among students, teachers and parents about homework, activities and school events. As worded in its application: “Technology is readily available in our one-to-one school and its use is embraced for all.”

Keyboarding instruction begins in kindergarten, and starting in third grade, students keep a digital portfolio using Google Sites. Teachers stay in touch using Google Classroom, as well as teacher Web pages and group texting. Posts on the Weiner Elementary Facebook page can reach more than 4,000 people and the page has more likes than the town of Weiner has residents.

In addition to technology, Weiner also sets the curve in academic areas. All students at Weiner Elementary are taught Spanish (by a native speaker) five days a week, and fifth- and sixth-graders can elect to take Spanish I or II for high school credit. The Social Studies/History curriculum includes a study of Arkansas history in every grade. And even though visual and musical art is continually incorporated in project-based curricula classes, all students still take a music theory class every week.

Instructionally, Weiner Elementary uses a tiered approach to keep all students in every course progressing: those at grade level as well as those working below or above it. Any students needing remediation are tutored, individually or in small groups, at least three times per week.

Weiner Elementary focuses on foundational educational tenets and proven principles like the importance of relationships, the link between self-esteem and achievement, and the need for cultural awareness beyond a small town’s city limits.

Every day starts with a morning assembly, where students recite the pledge of allegiance and sing the national anthem. The assembly also features lessons centered around the artist, musician and place of the week, as well as a Spanish word of the day and a daily “face of creativity.”

Weiner has a long history of support by its local residents and parents, which is arguably the primary factor in school success.

“The work, time, and money given by community and family members demonstrate to the students the importance that adults place on their education, which in turn influences students to value their education,” its application proclaims.

Over the course of a century and more, Weiner alums fervently support the school that served them, their parents and even their grandparents so well.

There wouldn’t still be a Weiner Elementary if not for that undying local effort and commitment. As a National Blue Ribbon Award recipient, what a loss that would have been for Arkansas.

Indeed, some of the best gains to be made in state public education might come from reopening great community schools that were foolishly consolidated and closed.

I’ll say it again: Wherever the state can replicate Weiner’s formula, it should do so.

Education by Example

Two years ago, I lamented about the need for leadership in Arkansas education specifically relating to our silly consolidation law that places an arbitrary enrollment number (350 students) ahead of every other learning metric.

Ahead of test scores, graduation rates, average ACT, AP course participation. Ahead of efficiency measures such as cost per pupil.

The most egregious example of school consolidation stupidity at the time was the Harrisburg School District’s proposal to close Weiner High School.

Weiner High School posted better numbers on every measure than Harrisburg, and yet the state education bureaucracy suspended the rules of reality long enough to pretend that WHS—despite delivering above-average education to its students—wasn’t worthy of existence as an institution of learning.

Previously, the state had nixed a proposed innovative and voluntary consolidation between Weiner and Delight to create a new district, called Arcadia, that would have harnessed for isolated schools the same digital distance-bridging technology used by interstate and international businesses.

Who knows how that trailblazing idea might have opened new frontiers in rural education? Certainly not the Arkansas leadership in place in 2010.

Today is a new day, however, and in the relatively short span since the November elections, our new leadership appears to have learned much from past mistakes.

First the new legislature created waivers for the Consolidation Act to correct the inane focus on enrollment to the exclusion of all else in evaluating school districts. Then the state also did an about-face on another knee-jerk negation.

A few years back, Weiner school patrons approached the state Board of Education with the idea of creating agricultural schools. Focusing curricula on agricultural technology, math and science made a bushel-barrel of sense in a state with a backbone ag economy, where 58 out of 75 counties are rural, and agribusinesses struggle to find qualified workers.

Despite ag statistics, support letters from large ag companies, Weiner’s history of academic excellence as a school and its location in the heart of Arkansas rice country, the state issued a totalitarian nyet.

The logic behind the idea didn’t change, but state leadership did, and voila!—in less than a month this spring the bill to establish Arkansas Schools of Agriculture went from filing to the governor’s signature.

Now the Weiner faithful are back in the news planning to petition under the new law to become the first such agricultural school by reorganizing and restoring its local district.

If anyone, anywhere in education or state government wants a textbook prototype of the premier model school community, the small rural town of Weiner is Exhibit A.

Want to talk about exemplary financial management in a time of escalating per-pupil costs without corresponding gains in student performance? In 126 years Weiner schools were never in fiscal distress. Community patrons voted for higher millages, while at the same time school officials tightened their belts and found ways to cut costs. When consolidated, Weiner was spending 20 percent less per pupil than the Little Rock School District.

Over the same century-and-a-quarter, Weiner also avoided ever falling into academic distress, and instead managed to consistently stay ahead of state averages and neighboring districts.

Weiner’s ACT scores? A full point higher than the Arkansas average. Literacy tests? In 2012 its 11th-grade scores tied for first in the state. Graduation rate? The last class was 100 percent with every single senior sent on to either college or military service. Gifted and Talented programs? In 2013 Weiner’s director won the state’s top GT service award (annexing district Harrisburg didn’t even offer a GT program).

Through thick and thin and ups and downs, confronting state-sponsored naysaying at every juncture, battling through frustration and disappointment, the Weiner patrons have personified education leadership by example—the kind of determination, perseverance and commitment to the youngsters in their community that every district in America would love to have.

They’ve earned their stripes to be a model school, and now they deserve to literally become the model for Arkansas’ new agriculture district pilot program. In addition to providing instruction that meshes college and career readiness expectations with the “skills gap” needs confronted by agricultural businesses, an agriculture school will give students hands-on experience, internships along with a technology-rich ag curriculum.

Weiner’s a prime candidate, with proximity to numerous agribusinesses, many of which have again submitted letters in support of the application. One large implement company described the need for more agri-educated workers as “tremendous.”

The first step in Weiner detaching from the Harrisburg district is a feasibility study, which representative parents say is underway (community volunteers donated funds for the cost). After that, a petition will be submitted and certified and then the parents and patrons of Weiner will be able to get back to doing what they’ve done so well for decades: show Arkansas and the world how a strong community school truly works.

It’ll be interesting now to see just what kind of inspiration for other small schools in rural areas—with smarter education laws now in place to bolster one of the state’s predominant economic sectors—Weiner can be.

I’m cheering them on.