CONWAY Lauren Harper of Conway thought she wanted a career in fundraising and development, but there was one problem: She didn’t like asking people for money.
She worked for two years with the American Red Cross in Little Rock, which she enjoyed, except for one little problem: She didn’t like asking people for blood, either.
Harper, a native of Clinton, majored in public relations at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
“I liked writing, and I like public speaking, and I just liked all the options open with that field,” she said.
Still, she kept searching for a job that fit her strengths.
While getting a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, she worked at UALR with a program called Children International. It partners with six schools in the Little Rock School District to make sure low-income students get school supplies, coats, shoes and other necessities.
She got the job as School Counts! counselor for Conway County in May 2010, a grant-funded position housed at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton.
There she found her niche.
“I realized that’s what I was most passionate about: education and access to education, helping people understand the value of education, so this position was a great fit for me,” she said.
It’s not like the education field was foreign to Harper. Her father teaches math at South Side High School in Bee Branch, and her mother is a speech pathologist in the Clinton School District.
“It’s kind of in my blood,” Harper said of education. “I love it.”
School Counts! is an initiative in Conway County that emphasizes an educated workforce.
Patty Shipp, a School Counts! board member, said School Counts! is “a grassroots effort to change the face of our local workforce to encourage students who otherwise thought college was impossible to go ahead and seek an education after high school graduation.”
She praised the work that Harper has done as the first and only School Counts! counselor.
“She’s done a great job,” Shipp said. “We really gave her the task of developing
the program within the schools and becoming our contact person for School Counts! with school counselors, classroom teachers and students, and she’s done a great job with facilitating that startup.”
Harper works with K-12 students in four school districts: South Conway County, Wonderview, Nemo Vista and Sacred Heart.
“What I spend most of my time doing is working with counselors and setting up visits to the schools. I might go to one classroom; it might be a schoolwide assembly,” Harper said.
“We have four School Counts! values that I talk with them about, and it’s really about developing a good work ethic. That can carry through from first grade through high school through college,” she said.
Those values are quality, attendance, persistence and goal-setting.
“I talk to them a lot about college, what it’s like, what they need to be doing to prepare, things like that,” she said.
“There are a lot of students who may not have a family member who has gone to college, so they don’t necessarily understand the process.”
Harper takes questions from students, and she can count on getting some of the same ones.
“One of the questions I get every time is, ‘How hard is it? And how expensive?’ Those are my two guaran-
teed questions,” she said. “No matter what age group — even the young kids, they’ve
heard it’s real expensive. Other than that, it’s all over the board.”
Harper said she talks to students about financial aid and tells them, “If you start working hard now and commit to making good grades, you’ll be eligible for scholarships.”
She said she invites the schools to plan field trips to UACCM to familiarize students with the campus so it’s “not so scary” when they go to college, wherever that may be.
Students in grades nine through 12 who meet certain criteria become School Counts! graduates, and it goes on their transcripts, she said.
“I get to see the School Counts! students a lot. If they have a problem, I’m here to help them, if it’s scheduling, financial aid or whatever,” Harper said.
She keeps a stack of letters sent to her by students who have seen her presentations, reminders of why she does what she does.
“They say the sweetest things,” Harper said.
One Morrilton Intermediate School student wrote, “At first I didn’t want to go, but once you started to talk to us, I said, ‘I’m going to college.’ So thank you for talking to us.”
Former School Counts! students who graduated from high school in 2010 have graduated from the two-year college.
“Seeing them walk across the stage was the greatest thing ever,” Harper said. Many of them transfer to a four-year school and come back to visit her, she said.
“To see them be successful, that’s been the best part,” she said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.