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An initiative that envisions Pulaski County's four school districts working with one another and with area businesses to operate career academies at each of the county's 10 high schools is advancing.

Top-level leaders of the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski districts -- working with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and using the Ford Next Generation Learning career academies model -- have created a proposed memorandum of understanding that establishes some "common purposes, principles and objectives" for the academies.

One of the immediate objectives, for example, is to form a representative leadership council to facilitate the planning and implementation of the career academies.

Another objective is to staff schools at levels required for full implementation of the academy model. Still another objective is to create an impartial, data-driven process for the selection of career academies in which representatives from each school have the opportunity to express academy preferences.

The School Board for the Pulaski County Special School District has already approved the three-page memorandum that pledges that the success of one district won't be at the expense of another, that there will be equitable access to career academies for all students across all four districts and that there will be an inclusive process of stakeholder engagement -- including teachers, parents and students.

Representatives of the other districts say they will act on the proposed memorandum in the coming days and weeks -- starting with the Little Rock Community Advisory Board meeting Thursday, James Reddish, the chamber's executive vice president, said.

That will be followed by school board action on the matter in July in both the Jacksonville and North Little Rock districts.

"This is not a formal contract, no specific dollar amounts or staffing commitments are being made," Reddish said about the memo of understanding. "Rather this document expresses the sentiments and commitment of the districts to pursue this transformation with shared purpose and to prioritize this transformation operationally."

If ultimately approved by all the school boards and by Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key, who serves in place of an elected board in the state-controlled Little Rock district, Reddish said the coming 2019-20 school year will be an "exciting one" for master planning. That planning will involve area businesses and cover the selection of the schools to house the first foundational freshmen academies in the 2020-21 school year.

"There is a lot of work ahead of us," Reddish said. "This document we feel is important ... to remind us all why we are doing this and to remind us all how we want to work together as undoubtedly difficult decisions will occur.

"It will also help those of us who are trying to raise additional resources," he said. "This will be sort of Exhibit A as we look for grants at national and local levels as well as for national and local partnerships."

The proposed memo is the latest development in the effort spearheaded by the Little Rock Regional Chamber to explore and possibly carry out the Ford Next Generation Learning model of career academies in the four districts.

Ford Next Generation Learning, which is an arm of the Ford Motor Co., has assisted about 35 communities -- including Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky. -- over more than a dozen years to establish the high school career academies.

A career academy pairs traditional academics with project-based learning and real-world problem-solving in different, multiple career fields such as medical professions, building trades, or the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Ford Next Generation Learning career academy model calls for each participating campus to start with freshman introductory academies and then add more specific career academies that are ideally made up of 200 to 250 students each.

In January, a team from the Ford initiative visited Pulaski County -- at the chamber's expense -- to assess the interest and capacity of the districts and their high schools to adopt the career academy model. That included checking out the existing college and/or career preparation programs at the schools as well as meeting with education, business/industry and community leaders.

The team concluded in a report this spring that there was local interest and good timing for pursuing the academy model.

The proposed memorandum begins with stating that all four school districts face common challenges and have common assets "that can be leveraged to overcome these challenges."

The memo writers concluded in their 17 findings that the use of the Ford academy model in other locations was "transformational, particularly in urban communities."

They further noted that the individual districts in Pulaski County will retain their autonomy and boundaries but that the districts can draw strength from collaboration as they work to strengthen programs for the success of students -- many of whom move from district to district and could benefit from a standardized structure.

Additionally, the proposed memo envisions the districts working toward improved enrollment and academic performance, and toward every student graduating from high school with college credit, industry recognized learning and stronger core academic achievement.

The memorandum calls on the districts to work toward providing students with equitable access to career themes regardless of where they live in the county. And the districts must work to ensure that teachers "will feel empowered and have a sense of ownership over this new model."

Existing career and technical education programming in the high schools "will be leveraged and scaled to align with the new academy focus within each school," the memorandum of understanding says.

Metro on 06/18/2019

Print Headline: Schools' push on careers gaining

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