Fort Smith and Little Rock will soon be home to a public service institute for incoming high school sophomores and juniors, with the program partially supported by the Clinton School of Public Service.

The Noble Institute will provide a summer program modeled on the curriculum at the Clinton School, a University of Arkansas System program based in Little Rock. According to the Wednesday (Mar. 13) statement from the Clinton School, students enrolled at the Noble Institute will participate in “hands-on, collaborative projects that identify and address real-world community challenges.”

Institute courses will be taught by instructors from around Arkansas and Clinton School alumni. The official launch will be in Little Rock from July 8-20, and a second offering will be in Fort Smith from July 22-Aug. 3. The Institute in Little Rock will be held at the Clinton School’s River Market campus. A location has not yet been determined for the Fort Smith program. The application form can be found at this link.

“Clearly the demand exists at the high school level to increase opportunities for engagement,” said Chad Williamson, Institute director, a Clinton School graduate and former high school teacher helping organize and launch the Institute. “Noble Institute will provide a unique environment that will harness the energy of service and entrepreneurship that exists in high school students today.”

Williamson said he expects each Institute class will initially have 16 students — the same number in the first Clinton School class.

ENTREPRENEURIAL CONNECTION
Fort Smith businessman Steve Clark admits to being the catalyst for the idea, but was quick to note that Williamson and many others at the Clinton School are making it happen.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Clinton School alumni and it’s exciting for us to see Clinton School graduates elevating the importance of public service among young people,” said Clinton School Dean Skip Rutherford.

Clark’s initial goal was to connect entrepreneurial-minded high school students with a “differentiated approach to the the traditional sit-and-get” form of education. Clark stressed that he supports public schools, but wanted to provide another option for high school students interested in adding unique learning “tools in their toolkit.”

Williamson said Clark’s initial goal is the goal.

“We’re in a very interesting time for high schoolers. And that time is the collaboration between an entrepreneurial mindset in which I, as a student, believe that I can change the world through public service,” Williamson explained.

Some schools now require some form of public service, but Williamson said it’s important for public service to be an opportunity rather than an obligation.

“That is a big, big difference,” Williamson said.

CONVERTING PASSION TO PURPOSE
He also said there is an emerging belief that students today aren’t only problem solvers, they are problem finders.

“We want to help them find that avenue to do something … to help them channel that passion into a purpose,” Williamson explained.

That passion for purpose has been found to lessen by the time students graduate from high school, according to a recent Gallup report.

A Gallup Student Poll released in January found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged. The survey included nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012.

“We not only fail to embrace entrepreneurial students in our schools, we actually neutralize them,” according to the Jan. 7, 2013 report by Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Continuing, Busteed wrote: “Forty-five percent of our students in grades five through 12 say they plan to start their own business someday. That’s a ton of entrepreneurial energy in our schools. Yet a mere 5% have spent more than one hour in the last week working, interning, or exposed to a real business. That would be our economic stimulus package right there. With each year that these students progress in school, not engaging with their dreams and thus becoming less engaged overall, the more our hopes of long-term economic revival are dashed.”

CLINTON SCHOOL EVALUATION
Williamson said the goal is to have two teachers in each class, with students responsible for individual work, and to also work in groups of two and four on public service projects.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish, is, ‘Here is a social problem, what can we do to have a social solution,’” Williamson said.

Input from the first two programs in Fort Smith and Little Rock will be evaluated by Clinton School faculty and students. Williamson also hopes a graduate student in the Clinton School will analyze the Institute as their project, and then make the Institute their “capstone” project in their final year.

“We’re really focused on getting a lot of input and guidance from Clinton School faculty. … We want to make it as tight as possible where everyone, everyone at the school and in the (Institute) program, is benefitting,” Williamson said.

Clark said support from the Clinton School causes him to be optimistic about the program and its potential reach beyond the Arkansas.

“I have every reason to believe this will be very well received. It’s our intention to grow this as rapidly as possible,” Clark said.

Could that expansion one day result in a high school focused on public service?

That’s not the initial goal. Williamson said the “notion of starting a high school based on public service is an awesome idea,” but there is too much debate about the future form of public schools to attempt to package a public service focus into a contemporary high school format.

“I almost wouldn’t want to pigeon hole ourselves into saying we will be a high school,” Williamson said.