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OPINION | REX NELSON: Next-generation learning

by Rex Nelson | January 12, 2022 at 3:54 a.m.

I smiled when I saw the headline in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Business & Farm section back in November.

It read: "Amazon site at LR port huge, bustling; 4 floors of fulfillment center in operation employing over 2,000 people."

"It is hard to fathom just how cavernous the first fulfillment center in Arkansas is, regardless of the point from which it is viewed," Noel Oman wrote. "One of its five floors remains unfinished, yet the 3.6 million-square-foot-facility at the Port of Little Rock already employs more than 2,000 people, according to its first general manager, Arkansas native Lorie White. ...

"The fulfillment center is where Amazon accepts and stores products that its customers order online and where Amazon prepares each customer's package for delivery. The packages are then sent to a delivery center. The center at the port is one of 110 in the United States and one of the three most-modern fulfillment centers Amazon operates."

I'm told there are now more than 3,000 people working at the Little Rock fulfillment center. That doesn't include hundreds of more people Amazon employs at another fulfillment center just across the river in North Little Rock. That 1 million-square-foot facility for more bulky products is along U.S. 70.

I wrote extensively last year about Amazon's plans to make Pulaski County a regional hub, but I had no idea at the time that the hiring spree would be this big. Amazon probably will employ more than 5,000 people at its Pulaski County facilities by the time all is said and done. That's the largest job influx into central Arkansas since the Little Rock Air Force Base opened at Jacksonville in 1955.

My thoughts after reading the story were this: "I hope these employees and their families actually live here."

For decades now, thousands of Arkansans who work in Pulaski County have refused to live here because they perceive it as having poor public schools and high crime rates. I'll save the crime issue for later. As far as public schools, an effort is now taking place that should give comfort to new Amazon employees and others with jobs in the area who must decide where to live.

The Academies of Central Arkansas is a joint initiative of the four public school districts in Pulaski County.

In 2019, the Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville North Pulaski and Pulaski County Special school districts joined forces with five chambers of commerce in the county to begin a planning process for Ford Next Generation Learning high school academies inside existing public schools.

Districts become partners with businesses in order to align resources. Those using the program in other states have shown higher graduation rates, increased academic engagement and more industry certifications.

"Ford NGL research has proved that community ownership and accountability is just as important to educating our children as good study habits and hard work," says Cheryl Carrier, executive director of Ford Next Generation Learning. "The Ford NGL partnership gives students and teachers a competitive edge that improves their chances for future success and will benefit the workforce and economic development needs of the region for years to come."

Hundreds of elected officials, school board members, business leaders, parents and teachers have been involved in the planning process in an attempt to ensure successful strategic partnerships between schools and businesses.

Last fall, it was announced that there are 13 businesses known as "cornerstone partners." They are Arkansas Children's Hospital, Arvest Bank, AT&T, Baldwin Shell Construction Co., Baptist Health, Central Arkansas Water, Entergy Arkansas, First National Bank, Haas Factory Outlet, Mainstream Technologies, McLarty Nissan, MHP-Team SI advertising and public relations agency and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

By blending core academics with career and technical education using the Ford Next Generation Learning method, it's hoped that students will see the relevance of math, science, English and social studies lessons. Those and other courses now will be taught through the lens of an occupation that interests them.

All 12 public high schools in Pulaski County have put into place freshman academies for students in the ninth grade. Most of the schools have identified the career-focused academies they will feature. They're in various stages of developing career-related coursework for upper grades.

Jay Chesshir, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders have been searching for years for ways to help enhance public education in the area. More than 40 cities participate in the Ford program, including Louisville and Nashville.

Carrier said the initiative will "improve student outcomes, improve workforce outcomes and improve community prosperity."

James Reddish, executive vice president of the chamber in Little Rock, says of the cornerstone partners: "We will need some runway in term of investments. So it may be cash. It may be donated equipment. It may be hours in-kind. But they have all committed at a six-figure level for the first two years and then additional years beyond that at a lower level because we won't need as much investment."

The addition of the Ford Next Generation Learning program couldn't have come at a better time. The economy is doing well in central Arkansas, but new jobs mean new workforce training needs. This effort should take things to the next level.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Print Headline: Next-generation learning


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