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story.lead_photo.caption A school bus passes as students head into the building for the first day of school at Little Rock Central High School on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe) ( Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Thomas Metthe)

The Academies of Central Arkansas -- a collaborative multiyear effort to meld core academics and career preparation in Pulaski County's 10 traditional high schools -- is pushing through the covid-19 pandemic to get career-themed academies in place, planners say.

In early 2019, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce introduced the Ford Next Generation Learning career academies model to the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County Special and Jacksonville/North Pulaski school districts.

That effort started in Pulaski County with leaders of the school systems, five chambers of commerce, and area businesses visiting campuses in other cities -- particularly Nashville, Tenn. -- that are using the Ford model of linking academics and professions, liking what they saw, and proceeding with planning here.

A $50,000 donation and a new name for the local initiative -- Academies of Central Arkansas -- were announced last March 12. The grant from Arvest Bank was targeted toward introductory programs for ninth- graders and for training and resources for participating teachers.

Jim Cargill, president and chief executive officer of Arvest Bank in central, northeast and southwest Arkansas, told the planners of the academies that the work they were doing was going to be transformational -- for Central Arkansas and the whole state.

"I don't know that I have ever seen one opportunity that is more clearly going to be impactful and helpful, and drive all the right things that need to happen ... like this one," he said.

He added that the initiative would go beyond just preparation for college but provide students with options for meaningful, enjoyable work and enable employers to hire and retain local graduates.

Hours later on that March 12, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that public schools in Pulaski County and three nearby counties would close the next day to on-campus instruction because of the arrival of the coronavirus in the state. Within days campuses statewide were closed to in-person instruction -- and didn't re-open to most students until the week of Aug. 24.

But planning for the career academies chugged along, James Reddish, executive vice president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said in a recent interview.

Some 70 teachers participated in July training programs, and the ninth-grade introductory seminar course -- sometimes a semester long and sometimes two semesters -- was incorporated into the slate of courses at several of the high schools.

"The first question I get asked is, 'Has covid sunk the Ford NGL battleship?,'" Reddish said. "The answer is 'Absolutely not.' It's changed it. We've modified it. We've persevered through it. We are still full-steam ahead."

Evidence of all of that comes this week with a career exposure event in which as many 1,000 ninth-graders from the four districts will meet online Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday with more than 40 businesses and industries, Reddish said.

The event that was once was planned for October at the Statehouse Convention Center shifted to online in December because of the covid-19 pandemic. A grant from Regions Bank Foundation and technology from Madrid, Spain that incorporates live chats, images and videos is making the digital event possible, Reddish said. The participating companies have "built" virtual booths to showcase to students the full suite of jobs and skills to be found within their professions -- from the entry level jobs to that of chief executive officer.

A small sample of the participating companies include Entergy, Rose Law Firm, Baldwin & Shell Construction, Roller Funeral Homes, Dassault Falcon Jet, and Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Students -- many of whom have already participated in assessments to identify their interests and skills -- have in recent days been equipped with workbooks and otherwise prepared by their teachers on questions to ask, etiquette to use and suggestions for interacting with at least four of the participating businesses.

Then there is a post-event exercise for students to complete, said Reddish who emphasized that the career exposure event is not a passive lesson but requires students to research in advance and reflect afterward about jobs and careers, some of which they may be unaware exist.

The career exposure experience is meant to help ninth grade-freshmen shape their high school experience, he said.

"We may come to find out that this is a better way to do it," Reddish said of the digital career exploration solution. "We're experimenting but I'm really thrilled that we were able to make this happen this school year."

The digital event breaks new ground for the Ford Next Generation Learning model that has been adopted in some 40 communities in the nation, he said.

The implementation of the career academies model is a work in progress with the different high schools in the four Pulaski districts at different points in offering the ninth- grade seminar courses and establishing the career themes.

Jacksonville High, for example, included the introductory seminar class in the 2019-20 school year and 10th-graders are now scheduled into courses that can lead in time to business and industry certifications upon graduation, Reddish said.

The Jacksonville/North Pulaski School Board in March approved three career academy themes and 19 narrowed career pathways within those academies for the high school. The approved academies are health and safety; building, automotive and design; and service, sales and marketing.

The newly configured Hall High STEAM Magnet High in the Little Rock district, on the other hand, doesn't have a freshman class this year so it won't offer the seminar until the 2021-22 school year. Little Rock's Central and Parkview high schools are teaching the ninth-grade seminar course in the coming spring semester. The course is an elective this year in the Pulaski County Special School District.

Much of the emphasis right now is on providing schools with training on creating master schedules to incorporate the academies and common planning time for teachers, as well as on how best to teach current core academic lessons through the new career academy lens to make the lessons relevant to students.

Other ongoing work is focused on identifying the facility and equipment needs of the schools to meet the demands of the revamped instruction, Reddish said.

At Hall, engineering -- including computer science software and game development and integrated manufacturing -- is one academy. Hall was selected for the engineering focus because of the available space at Hall. Another academy will be health sciences with pathways for biomedical sciences and medical professions, including dentistry, according to information provided this month to the Little Rock district's Community Advisory Board.

Planners for Parkview, the Little Rock district's longtime arts and science magnet school, are working toward academies centered on the performing and fine arts; art production; and marketing and sciences, including medical professions and military science through the school's long-standing Navy JROTC program. Engineering won't be eliminated but will take a different twist at Parkview to fit with the school's available space and tie into the arts programs, Reddish said of the current planning.

Planning for Little Rock's Central High is also constrained by space restrictions, Reddish said, also noting that there is "a lot working" and there is a desire to honor that and to be conservative in the approach to any changes.

As another example of the academy development, the three academies at the new Southwest High include aerospace and medical sciences; business and computer science; and leadership and public service.

The new Little Rock West High School of Innovation has taken on agriculture business and innovation, including the narrower career pathways of veterinary science, horticulture and supply chain management.

The district's existing Excel and Metropolitan Vocational Technical Skills Center programs , such as law enforcement, fire and emergency service, automotive services and construction, are also being incorporated into the academies concept, Little Rock School District leaders have said.

The academies model is intended to give students choices of schools and programs based on their interests. But to keep students from traveling miles across the county to participate in a program, the goal is to provide enough variety and redundancy in programs at the schools so that students won't feel the need to travel far for a program that meets their interests.

"My goal is no more than one school away," Reddish said, adding that in Nashville, Tenn., about 5 % of students choose to attend a school other than their attendance zone school for an academy choice.

The districts and their high schools are approaching the period of student registration for the 2021-22 school year.

"As we enter this open- enrollment period our hope is that parents will take a really specific look at these schools and these academies," Reddish said adding that he hopes the academies will go so far as to give people a reason to stay and a reason to move to Little Rock and Pulaski County.

"From the chamber standpoint, that is what will cause the economy to take off," he said. "We want to get to a place where we can say 'Where else are you going to find one of these academies? Where else can your kids have these opportunities?' That's the vision."

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