UA system trustees tour PEAK Center

A man exits the Peak Innovation Center in Fort Smith in this March 28, 2022 file photo. The center is a multimillion-dollar hands-on learning facility offering state-of-the-art technical and career programming to high school students in 22 Northwest Arkansas school districts. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FORT SMITH -- The PEAK Innovation Center has optimized workforce training, education, and skills development for youth in the River Valley because it presents students with multiple possibilities for their futures and teaches them to be ready to work in industry as they complete their schooling.

"People across the state say that we're the place that gets it right," said University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley. "It changes lives" for students, "not just livelihoods."

And the growth in maturity of students from entrance to exit is "amazing," said Amanda Seidenzahl, director of the Western Arkansas Technical Center at UAFS. "They integrate very well into the workforce" because PEAK's model is "very work based."

For example, PEAK includes "lots of collaborative space where students can work together," because teamwork is critical in the modern workforce, she said. There are no bells, either, so students are responsible for getting themselves where they need to be on time, and many PEAK attendees work in the building well past typical school-day hours.

Riley echoed Seidenzahl's sentiments, noting these students "understand how professionals think and work, because they are becoming those professionals here."

Members of the University of Arkansas System board of trustees toured the facility -- which officially opened in the spring of 2022 -- Wednesday prior to a meeting on the UAFS campus.

PEAK, a partnership of education -- including Fort Smith Public Schools and UAFS -- community, business, and industry, is primarily a workforce initiative, as students are taught by industry leaders in real-world scenarios on modern, industry-specific equipment.

"The partnerships are what make this successful -- if any part of that puzzle was missing, we couldn't do what we do -- [and] the big pieces of equipment were all bought new, [because] we wanted students working on the same" equipment they'll utilize in the workforce, said Jason Green, vice president of human resources for ABB Group. PEAK is "building unbelievable talent for [employers] every day."

"We know our region, and we're meeting those [workforce] needs here," Riley said. PEAK is "the brainchild of a big group, and we get to have our faculty teaching in this place."

Students, whether heading to college or directly into the workforce following high school, develop real-world skills and earn industry-specific certifications, but it's not limited to youth, Seidenzahl said. Rather, "incumbent workers" can also pick up needed training through PEAK's connections with Fort Smith Adult Education, UAFS, and the Regional Workforce Development Group.

"You're going to have employers you don't even know about" opt to locate and/or expand in the Fort Smith region in the next five-ten years because of the asset of PEAK, trustee Kevin Crass predicted.

PEAK is open to 22 school districts in the River Valley region, and 19 currently have students studying at PEAK, said Seidenzahl. On an average day, more than 400 students utilize PEAK, all at no cost, and most of PEAK's funding stems from the Arkansas Office of Skills Development.

All Western Arkansas Technical Center coursework students complete at PEAK seamlessly transfers to UAFS, and some students can earn Associate's degrees while earning their high school diplomas. Advanced manufacturing, information technology, health sciences, and emerging art and design are among the offerings at PEAK.

The Mercy-Baptist healthcare wing is named for those two hospitals because they combined to donate $1 million for it, seeing the value it could provide in training needed nurses, Riley said. "This country will be short 3 million nurses by the end of 2025," and Arkansas isn't immune from that shortage.

The investment hospitals are making in training competent personnel is evident at PEAK, and students are graduating "very skilled," said Col. Nate Todd, a member of the board of trustees.

Unfortunately, educating and training nurses is only one part of the equation, said Michael Moore, the UA System's vice president for academic affairs. Arkansas ranks in the bottom 10 of states for nursing salaries, so all too often, nurses trained in Arkansas travel to other states due to significantly higher compensation.

However, educating and training nurses in the state still provides the best chance that they'll work in Arkansas, as opposed to learning in another state, said Chris Thomason, the UA System's vice president for Planning and Development. "This is still the best model."

Students who pursue nursing education at PEAK have three excellent choices following completion of their studies, Green said. They can go directly into the workforce, they can pursue additional credentials at a university like UAFS, or they can work while also attending more school, "which we love" to see.

The healthcare wing isn't the only state-of-the-art space at PEAK, Green said. The environment in the Gene Haas machining lab "replicates a manufacturing plant."

The 12,000-square-foot Gene Haas machining lab is "the only one of its kind in the state, [providing] a unique opportunity for students," Seidenzahl said. "If they want to have a job when they exit this program, they will have a job."

PEAK is the last of the Fort Smith school district's Vision 2023 plan projects to be completed, paid for through a 5.558-mill property tax increase voters approved in May 2018 that generated roughly $121 million before expiring. The district put aside $13.7 million from the millage increase and conducted fundraising to ensure students could attend at no cost.

"Voters voted to tax ourselves to invest in this," because they knew its value, but in order to keep pace with improving technology, "we will have to raise additional funds" to update equipment in the next few years, Green said. "We have to keep skating to where that puck is going to be" in the future.