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story.lead_photo.caption “We want to transform Arkansas into one of the top, leading states in the country in education. … We want to flip the statistics. It’s a very bold goal, but it’s achievable.” - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Susan Harriman's children are grown, but she's got a firm lock on promoting education in Arkansas, from pre-K to post-college.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
“Her greatest gift is execution. She can implement a project better than practically anybody I’ve ever seen.” — Vicki Saviers, chairman of the board at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation

Susan Harriman

• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 19, 1961, Harlingen, Texas



• THE MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL: Beef Stroganoff

• I ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT EAT yellow mustard.

• FAVORITE RESTAURANTS: Chuy's, Layla's, Terrace on the Green, Sky -- I think Sky has the best Japanese food in town. My Japanese opinion.


• FAVORITE CHILDREN'S BOOKS: C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia

• I LIKE TO WEAR pretty clothes.

• I WOULD NEVER WEAR overalls.

• GUESTS AT MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Goto Teruko, my nanny in Japan who taught me about Japanese culture and how to laugh; Helen Corbitt, a cook from Texas, who worked for Stanley Marcus and started the Zodiac Room; and Robert Frost.

• IF I'VE LEARNED ONE THING IN MY LIFE IT'S to not take things so seriously. Laugh more, I guess.

• I WANT MY KIDS TO REMEMBER my family's love of Japan.

• LAST BOOK I READ: The Giver by Lois Lowry

• THE BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: "Get the opinions of people around you."

• MY PET PEEVE ABOUT SOCIETY: Too many whiners

• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: dedicated

Harriman is the executive director of a new nonprofit, Forward Arkansas, a public-private partnership among the Little Rock-based Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Bentonville-based Walton Family Foundation and the state Board of Education, with a mission to improve public education.

She left her job as director of policy and special projects for the state Education Department in May to take over the project. Its goal, she says: "Every child in Arkansas [will] graduate prepared for the workforce or college and thrive in our society."

"We want to transform Arkansas into one of the top, leading states in the country in education," she adds. "I'm honored and I'm humbled. It's a huge responsibility. Because we are serious about this. We want to flip the statistics. It's a very bold goal, but it's achievable. We just have to believe in ourselves and we can do it. That's one of the barriers."

Well, that and money.

"There are a lot of resources that could be aligned and work more effectively in our system, and we can do a better job in getting resources to communities and to schools," she notes diplomatically.

In August 2014, Rockefeller Foundation President and CEO Sherece West-Scantlebury and Kathy Smith, senior program officer for the Walton Family Foundation, linked with the state Board of Education to identify ways to strengthen public education. A 28-member steering committee -- educators, lawmakers, business operators and civic leaders -- partnered with a national consulting firm to get input from more than 8,000 Arkansans via focus groups and forums.

A memorandum of understanding that the Board of Education approved in June commits the two foundations to provide three years of financial support, staff guidance, meeting space and fiscal oversight, while the state Board of Education and Department of Education provide matching, in-kind support, advocate for the initiative, correlate education rules and regulations with initiative goals and provide data and other tools for monitoring program progress.

Harriman says the idea had been brewing for a while. "I moved here six years ago, but I've been working in Arkansas in the education field since 2001, and there's been numerous discussions about the need for a state vision, a state strategic plan for education."

Forward Arkansas incorporated July 1, with paperwork in progress to obtain 501(c)3 nonprofit tax status.

"We've started from the ground up," Harriman says. "We're in the process of bringing on staff and setting up systems for operation. We're looking at office space in the 501 Building, right across the street from the [state] Capitol. And we're in discussions with Arkansas State University system [about] partnering with them, having them become our fiscal agent. We're also partners with parents and community leaders, and educators, civic leaders, business leaders and policymakers."

Forward Arkansas will focus on seven areas: Pre-kindergarten education; Teaching and Learning (supporting students in developing the full range of knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in college and careers); a so-called "Teacher Pipeline" (so that "all schools, especially those in high-need areas, have access to talented educators who have been rigorously prepared"); Support Beyond the Classroom (providing "access to and support in accessing the nutritional and health resources needed to come to school ready to learn"); Leadership (focusing on principals and superintendents); Academic Distress; and Systems and Policies.

The initial focus is on quality pre-K, which "we feel ... is the foundation," Harriman explains, "that if you start early, it's the right thing to do to level the playing field.

"There's a lot of opportunity right now, a lot of reasons to look at this issue first," she says. "One of them being that we were selected as one of the states that a group of foundations is looking at on pre-K, including the [Bill and Melinda] Gates Foundation, which has made early learning a priority -- a shift, since they were looking at K-12 and at the beginning, looking at small high schools.

"They were here [last month] and we met with them for two days. They'll be helping us with our voluntary quality pre-K initiative this fall and this spring. We're looking at a three- to five-year commitment of support from them, resources, technical assistance, expertise and guidance. And we hope that that leads to future investments," Harriman adds.

"I feel like we just absolutely have done the right thing at the right time with Forward [Arkansas]," says Vicki Saviers, chairman of the board at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, who "just rolled off" the state Board of Education in June.

"I think foundations like Gates have been interested in Arkansas for years, but the feedback we kept getting was that 'There's no strategic plan, it's just happening piecemeal, we need to plug into a plan.' And sure enough, once we got this off the ground, they came a'calling. We'll get interest from other foundations as well."

Saviers says she first encountered Harriman when she was executive director of the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock, which she founded.

"I was a big fan from way back," she says. "She came to town in a capacity with an organization out of Texas that understood the value of looking at data.

"I just remember thinking she was so focused on doing the right thing for kids and understanding how the systems we needed to change support that," Saviers continues. "It was a complicated subject, and she made it so much simpler.

"Arkansas was so lucky the day Susan moved to Arkansas because we gained an extraordinary proponent of education. She just brings a wealth of knowledge in so many different areas. Her greatest gift is execution. She can implement a project better than practically anybody I've ever seen.

"She does so very strategically; she's very collaborative. She can take a very complicated subject and simplify it in such a way that creates a lot of support. That's an unusual quality," Saviers said.


Harriman traveled a lot as a child. "My father was in the Air Force," she explains. "We moved around. I was born in southern Texas, but when I was in first grade we moved to Tokyo. I was there through the fourth grade."

She learned a little bit of Japanese, "some folk songs; I know origami. For some reason I really identify with that time in my life. It was a very happy time for my family. And I fell in love with the culture. The art, the textiles, the philosophy, their love of nature, their temples.

"And I have been collecting Japanese things my entire life. I have a collection of kimonos and obis, scrolls, silk-screens, pottery, porcelain, sake sets and ginger jars, beautiful silk dolls -- they don't make them out of silk anymore. A lot of them are plastic."

When her father retired from the military, they moved around a little more -- Charleston, S.C.; San Antonio; Columbus, Ga. -- before settling into the Dallas-Fort Worth area when she was in the seventh grade.

Education wasn't her career goal. But after she graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a bachelor of business administration degree in marketing, she couldn't get a job. At that time, in the mid-'80s, the marketing market was flooded.

"I really fell into education as a new bride and was going to start a family," she says. So she got into substitute teaching and did that for 2 1/2 years when her oldest daughter was young.

She spent five years with the elaborate title of "coordinator of coordinated vocational-academic education" with the Arlington (Texas) Independent School District, while getting a master's degree in education from the University of North Texas.

"I was told about an opportunity where high-school students worked out in the community -- they were in school for half a day and worked out in the community half a day. It was a career education program for academically challenged students. Do you know the movie Dangerous Minds, with Michelle Pfeiffer? Kind of like that.

"At first, a lot of it was common sense," she recalls. "We taught them communication skills and first impressions and how to interview and financial skills.

"They were very intelligent, intelligent enough to start the third Monday of a semester and get credit for it; smart enough to know how to beat the system. Many of them knew how to declare themselves as special-ed students, so the system would provide them with an IEP [Individualized Education Plan, a document developed for schoolchildren who need special education], and they would be guaranteed passing a course.

"Some of them I had for two years. They were at risk with a potential of dropping out of high school and my job was to help save them. College-bound or academically successful students were fast-tracked. But for the kind of kids I taught, there wasn't much interest or support. It was a surprise for me."

She left to head a program at Tarrant County College called "Tech Prep," through which she built partnerships between area public school systems, community colleges and universities, state agencies, businesses and industries. "It was a program that aligned vocational education, career education in high school, with higher education," she says. "Basically you could get college credit in high school for courses that aligned with associate degrees."

Harriman discovered it can be a tough, vicious cycle for young people who aren't necessarily suited or equipped to go on to college right out of high school.

"The average age of a community college student is 27 or 28, so what do most of our young people do [if] they don't go to college? They get a job, get a relationship, get married, they have a baby, and they go back to community college."

The majority of the time, students don't finish.

"They have a job because they have to work and they can't finish a degree, they just take a course or two to get that next raise. So something really needs to be done to bridge that nine-year gap." That's a possible down-the-line project for Forward Arkansas, she says. "We are definitely looking at workforce training and development, and making public education more engaged, more relevant with careers."

Another possible area of pursuit for Forward Arkansas may be continuing Harriman's Education Department success on expanding broadband internet access to rural areas. (It's the subject of Page 13 of Forward Arkansas' multicolor "The State of Education in Arkansas 2015 Full Report" booklet that the nonprofit's steering committee has issued.)

"We made great strides, but there are more to be made," she says.


Harriman's first contact with Arkansas came in 2001 as the U.S. Secretary of Education's Region VI representative, helping to implement the No Child Left Behind Act across several Southern and Southwestern states. At the time she was living in Dallas. She moved to Arkansas six years ago when she married Morril Harriman, former chief of staff for former Gov. Mike Beebe, after he spent 16 years representing District 27 in the state Senate.

They literally exchanged glances across a crowded room at a professional function, and Harriman says he asked the people he was with who she was. It took a while for them to actually get together, but she tells stories of a pivotal trip he made to Dallas wherein she entertained him with a visit to what was then Cowboys Stadium in Arlington and dinner at a taco dive.

In her relatively few minutes of spare time each week, "We love to go out to dinner. And Morril and I love to cook -- really great food, chicken curry and chicken teriyaki and beef bourguignon. We love spaghetti and meatloaf, and he makes great lamb chops on the grill."

She has two daughters from her previous marriage -- Maggie, 31, who is married and raising a family in New York, and Kathryn, 25, a graduate of the University of Texas who now works in public relations in Austin, Texas. "Morril and I like to say we have two really great cities to go visit, Austin and New York. We love both of them."

When she retires, five, 10 years down the line, "We'd like to have a condo downtown in a big city -- New York, Boston -- and a little place in the country," splitting their time between the two, and then travel to see her daughters and possibly back to Japan -- to go to Kyoto.

High Profile on 10/02/2016

Print Headline: Susan Bonesteel Harriman


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