Wrapping up its second year of educating junior high school students, Explore Academy in Pine Bluff received a national award Wednesday to the surprise of many.
Students and faculty members were treated to New Orleans-themed goodie bags inside the cafeteria upon learning the school for grades 7-9 was named Star Academy Program of the Year by NOLA Education, the New Orleans-based firm that develops the Star curriculum. Explore Academy is based in the Horton-Richardson building of the old Dollarway High School campus and is operated as a partnership among the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative, and Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel school districts.
It was selected out of 51 schools in 17 states that utilize the curriculum, according to NOLA Education vice president Robin Mussa.
"Just very thankful and grateful for everything that we've got here," Explore Principal Brad Bateman said. "Parents have been supportive. We've gotten great support from our public schools, Pine Bluff School District and Watson Chapel School District and the Arkansas River coop. We couldn't have done this without all that support."
Explore opened for the 2021-2022 school year and helps students accelerate their learning by mastering more content at their grade level at a faster pace, said Cathi Swan, director of the Arkansas River coop. The school became the first in Arkansas to utilize the Star curriculum, and now 12 other schools in the state have followed suit.
"We chose NOLA as a partner because of the success they had in other states," Swan said. "For us to be chosen as site of the year, after the two years we've been here, that says a lot about the support of the school districts. They have to say yes, and they have to support this on a daily basis. They have to make sure kids get to come, so there's a lot of work on the district end. And, then, the staff every day and Mr. Bateman, his leadership, community support, we're just surprised."
The Star curriculum, Mussa explained, has hands-on components that are career-focused and workforce-developed so students can connect their core classroom content to future careers. Explore was selected for the award based on its partnership, fidelity to the program and achievements in excess of other programs, she said.
"They're mentoring kids," Mussa said. "Their leadership roles and with being part of a council, speaking at summits, achieving the growth and the engagement that other programs have not seen across the country."
Students at Explore Academy are selected based on academics and other life circumstances that may lead them to choose to attend, Swan said.
Bateman had just finished leading an end-of-year awards assembly in the old Dollarway fieldhouse when he and the school community were called to the cafeteria for a presentation.
"The only thing I knew was that they were cleaning the cafeteria this week," Bateman said. "I knew something was up, but I definitely didn't think it was this."
Bateman barely contained his emotion after Mussa presented him with a crystal trophy and metal plaque recognizing Explore's honor. He told the students he enjoys coming to work every day.
"Just seeing the kids learning, just seeing the activity in the classroom and how much fun they're having with learning, just hearing their conversations about what they're doing in the classroom, that's what the joy is to me," Bateman said.
Explore also named its Star Academy Student of the Year, ninth-grader Tryniti Sterling. The honor will allow Tryniti to compete against award winners from other campuses for national Star Academy Student of the Year.
"It feels very wonderful. It makes me feel like I am a leader at my school," Tryniti said. "I think this school is very, very, very wonderful. It's a wonderful school. We have smaller class settings, which allows for more learning to be involved, and we have lots of hands-on activities. I get excited to be able to work with experiments and learn new things. I get taught new things every day."