School of Innovation in Springdale set for more students, new name, new campus

by Rose Ann Pearce (rapearce@thecitywire.com) 542 views 

Take a new idea coming out of the Arkansas Legislature about three years ago, mold it into a workable plan, nurture it and watch it grow into a new school model that gives students more responsibility and a stronger role in pursuing their dreams.

Now that new school is Springdale’s School of Innovation, and it’s poised for another leap into the future as it ends its second year of existence and prepares to move into a new home under a new name honoring the late Don Tyson. School officials said they chose the Don Tyson name because of his entrepreneurship and visionary leadership through more than six decades before his death in 2011 age 80.

Tyson Foods Board Chairman John Tyson, Don’s son, said the family is pleased  to donate $1.5 million for the naming rights and ongoing development, and praised the Springdale schools for their work educating future leaders. He said hopefully the Tyson name will reinforce the goals set by the district and aid in their achievement.

The school is built to specifications to expand student learning and will add another class of students as it moves toward its goal of 1,000 eighth through 12th grade students by the 2018-19 school year. It is estimated that 400 students will move to the first phase of a new 145,000 square-foot, $24 million campus on Hylton Road when school begins in August. About 200 new students bringing the total school size to 600 students will join them. Though the school is opening in August the district said construction will likely continue to October. The school will become a district-run conversion charter next year.

The school opened in 2014 in the Jones Center for Families after receiving permission from the Arkansas Department of Education as one of the state’s first schools of innovation. At the state level, a school of innovation was envisioned as a test school for new ideas for how high schools could operate, offering a personalized, self-paced curriculum that allows students to advance through course after mastering content and skills, rather than waiting until the end of a semester or school year before moving to a new course.

Schools in Fayetteville, Flippen, Harrisburg, Russellville, Bentonville and White County are among the schools that received school of innovation designations in 2014 and 2015, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

“We know as the education community, we have to do more to get kids prepared,” said Megan Witonski, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Springdale, who was the assistant commissioner for learning services when the school of innovation concept was development. She helped write guidelines and rules for the program.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to reconstruct the education process for kids,” she said. “Success comes from getting to the level of personalization and students having their own autonomy.”

The school of innovation process allows schools to explore educational practices best fitting the interests of their students and communities, she said. Students are given the chance to apply learning in and out of the classroom in real-world applications.

“Allowing students to drive their educational experience through student voice and student choice transforms their personalized learning experience into one that is captivating and relevant,” Witonski said in an earlier interview.

It’s not your mother’s high school but a blend of core curriculum and an in-depth look at career opportunities. Principal Joe Rollins said the school has grown out of thought, study and a central question: what if education is reinvented to be so relevant for today and then, make it accessible to students?

“Kids need to know what’s out there to make well informed decisions,” Rollins said. “All students have a future to prepare for.”

Students are in four different classes four days a week. Wednesdays are reserved as “real world Wednesdays” when students get in-depth exposure from business and industry leaders who spend the day with students talking about what business or the workforce is really like. Topics may range from work habits, executive skills, time management, organization, collaboration or thinking on one’s feet and how to develop those skills, Rollins said. The important part of real world Wednesdays is that students are learning from those who work in the business world every day.

“Who better to teach business skills,” Rollins asked, rhetorically. “We’ve modeled the school as a business setting, giving them a school that resembles a work area.”

The new campus will be divided into areas of career interest where students can develop the skills they need for specific areas of interest. such as skilled trades (welding, heating, ventilation and air conditioning) or medical or biomedical fields or robotics and automation or alternative energies, such as a new solar field under development by Ozarks Electric Cooperative adjacent to the new school.

Besides career opportunities, students also may get an early start in college at NorthWest Arkansas Community College and students may even get an opportunity to enter the workforce as interns in local companies.

“We really like what they are doing,” said Mike Harvey, chief operating officer for the Northwest Arkansas Council. “It’s a real game changer.”

The school also plans to focus on the jobs in demand in Northwest Arkansas, Harvey said. He said those jobs include trade occupations where there are “tons of opportunities;” business and finance occupations, health careers, and the building industry.

“It’s an education environment that creates an opportunity for a student to really explore a career path,” said Bill Rogers, vice president of communications and special projects for the Springdale Chamber of Commerce. “It’s very clear to us that the school will improve the community, between the marketplace and employment opportunities, the schools and the courses and classwork and the community.”

“The program is unique in that the program develops specifics to show students what’s out there,” Rogers said. “It’s a peek behind the curtain.”

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