Grant to give aid to rural schools

Support to include trainingfor teachers in 25 districts

A partnership between state and national education organizations -- with a three-year, $4.85 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville -- will provide training and other support to faculty members in 25 rural Arkansas school districts.

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching and the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators on Wednesday announced the establishment of the Arkansas Rural Educator Network and the grant, calling the initiative a way to provide customized training to professionals in selected districts.

Two groups or cohorts of school districts will be served by the initiative. The first group of 12 districts and 30 schools is starting work this semester. Those districts are Blevins, Cedar Ridge, Cross County, Drew Central, Fountain Lake, Heber Springs, Helena-West Helena, Hoxie, Jessieville, Magazine, Pangburn and Southside.

The second group will be named in the spring and will begin work as part of the network in the 2021-22 school year.

"When Arkansas educators have more opportunities to collaborate and strengthen teaching and learning, kids win," said Mike Hernandez, executive director of Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators. "This initiative will benefit our schools for years to come and create a lasting network of education leaders across the state."

The National Institute of Excellence in Teaching will pair specialists and districts together for the next three years with the goal of enhancing instructional leadership and coaching skills of teachers and principals.

Beth Shumate, the superintendent of the Magazine School District, welcomed the opportunity to be a participant in the network initiative.

"This grant allows us to make sure all our learning systems are working together to best support our students," Shumate said. "We know we have a great school district and put students first to help them reach their future goals. This grant will allow all of us to continue that legacy while reaching higher and doing better for our students."

The institute is a national nonprofit organization that uses evidence-based teaching and learning practices to accelerate educator growth, according to information released Wednesday about the Arkansas initiative.

The institute specialists will begin by assessing the districts for their strengths and then work with the districts to design and implement customized plans in areas such as virtual and remote instruction, teacher leadership, principal leadership and high-quality curriculum.

The school districts members of the network will engage in regular professional learning, training and coaching for both virtual and in-person school settings, and they will collaborate monthly with fellow district leaders on common challenges and shared learning.

After the first school year, the institute will formulate a long-term plan for each partnering district to ensure sustainability and increase schools' instructional capacity.

The institute -- whose chief executive is a former Tennessee education commissioner and whose board of directors includes former Arkansas Department of Education Director Ray Simon -- has been a leader in developing resources and tools for supporting virtual instruction, training thousands of educators on virtual and remote teaching strategies over the past several months.

"At a time when rural districts need more support and connections to resources, this partnership addresses both," said Candice McQueen, the institute's chief executive officer. "We are excited about the creation of the Arkansas Rural Educator Network to create a statewide opportunity to meet the unique needs of rural districts, and we look forward to building a strong coalition that supports educator growth and effectiveness and drives greater student success."