The Little Rock School District is adding classes in health professions, technology solutions, teacher preparation and construction trades to its course offerings for 2017-18, and it plans to reinvigorate its law enforcement program.
The courses — components of the district’s new Excel Careers for Advanced Professional Studies — will provide 11th- and 12th-graders in the state’s largest district with opportunities to earn industry certificates and college hours along with traditional high school graduation credits, Superintendent Mike Poore said Wednesday in announcing the expanded offerings.
“We have a wonderful career and technical education program at our [Metropolitan Career Technical Center] campus,” Poore said. “We certainly want to make that even better and expand the options and opportunities for our students. We also want … to launch a new level of support for our students and for our business community,” he said about Excel and its potential to be economically beneficial to the city, as well as to students.
Officials say the daily, 2½-hour classes in the career fields will accommodate teaching and learning centered on real-world problem solving, hands-on projects and off-campus internships. Students will be able to take “a deep dive” into the career fields through exposure to technology centers, construction sites, elementary school classrooms and medical clinics, Poore said.
The slate of career fields and courses will be expanded to include aviation in the 2018-19 school year.
While Poore and representatives of partnering businesses and civic and education organizations are formally introducing the Excel courses to parents, students and the general public this week, the initiative has been in the works since before Poore was picked to lead the state-controlled district in the spring of 2016.
Poore has long said that his three main directives from his boss, Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, are to improve student achievement in Little Rock’s lowest-performing schools, earn the district’s release from state control, and develop “world class” career centers.
Jay Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said it’s been almost 10 years since central Arkansas businessmen saw in Rome, Ga., a model they wanted to duplicate in Little Rock to connect high school students to postsecondary education and local careers.
“Today is a beautiful day,” Chesshir said. “Today, the state’s largest school district plants a flag in the ground and says every child, every kid, has an opportunity to do what they want to do, to earn a living that they want to earn that provides a quality of life that allows them to live in a place that makes Little Rock and central Arkansas even greater than it is today.”
Chesshir said the initiative will enable Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner to hire people who have a passion for law enforcement and for health care professionals to introduce young people to a variety of careers.
“It gives people an opportunity to see as children the amazing world that exists, not somewhere else, but right here,” he said. It also gives local and global companies the chance to see a place that is creating the workforce of the future — be it in a career that is in a police car or behind a computer, a desk or a screwdriver.
Poore started a career-education program — the Ignite initiative — in the Bentonville School District, where he was superintendent for five years before moving on to Little Rock.
To help support the Little Rock initiative, the district is joining the Center for Advanced Professional Studies’ network of school districts, which includes the Bentonville district. About two dozen districts in nine states are part of the network, which got its start in metropolitan Kansas City, Mo.
The network members share training and best practices for developing career-education programs that are tied to the needs of their communities, Poore said. The network membership will make it possible for Little Rock teachers to take part in summer training programs and collaborate with colleagues in the different career fields. The network also helps with forming partnerships, websites, marketing plans and ties to higher education.
The process of identifying career fields in Little Rock started with a “think tank” of school district and Chamber of Commerce representatives, Poore said. Advisory teams were subsequently formed for each career field to help with developing the curriculum, marketing the program to students and their parents, selecting staff and determining sites for the program, Poore said.
Several of the advisory team members participated in the live-streamed news conference Wednesday to describe their commitments to the district’s initiative.
Margaret Ellibee, chancellor of the newly renamed University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, said the college will align its programs to the Excel courses. As students graduate from high school, they will be able to enroll in any of the college’s 85 programs to earn two-year degrees or move on to universities that offer bachelor degrees.
Additionally, Little Rock School District students who earn at least nine hours of concurrent college credit while in high school will be entitled to a free, three-credit-hour class at Pulaski Tech, she said.
Poore said the concurrent credit from higher-education institutions “is bank for our students” and propels them into college.
Weldon Johnson, executive director of Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, announced a contribution of $2,500 to help the district and students pay for the tuition for concurrent college credit courses, and he challenged other businesses and individuals in health care and the other targeted fields to make similar contributions.
Poore said each $2,500 contribution will cover the tuition costs for a 25-student class.
Buckner said his department already has provided a 200,000-mile but fully functional police car to the law enforcement program at Metropolitan Career Technical Center. He also has committed to assign Jessica Eubanks, a 25-year member of the force, to the district’s program.
“Personnel is my most precious resource, which tells you that, when I have 72 [officer] vacancies, how much we value the Metro program,” he said.
The partnership with the school district will help the Police Department recruit future employees and possibly increase the number of department employees who live in the city.
Shameka Montgomery, the Little Rock district’s director of career and technical education, said students interested in the Excel career fields should see the district’s website for course descriptions and talk to counselors about enrollment. The Excel courses are open to students who will be juniors or seniors next year at any of the district’s five high schools. The construction-trades program will be based at Metropolitan, she said. The teacher cadet program will be based at each high school. Locations for technology and medical professions will be finalized after student registration for courses closes this spring.