When the Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale reopens its doors this fall, it will begin its fourth school year with almost 800 students, grades 7-11.
It is launching a seventh-grade pilot program, a move originally planned for the 2018-19 school year, but pushed forward because requests from parents wanting more choices for younger students. The school will begin construction on the second phase of its campus on Hylton Road at the beginning of 2018 and will add 12th grade in the 2018-19.
As a conversion public charter school, the School of Innovation has freedom to pursue alternative methods outside the realm of traditional education, but it still operates under the Springdale School District, rather than independently.
Principal Joe Rollins said School of Innovation students show some of the highest performance for their grade level district-wide, and that is a testament to what is possible when education is untethered by traditional rules.
“It truly serves as a lab for the Springdale School District,” he said.
Rollins said the model, which uses blended classes and project-based learning, and its custom curriculum, based heavily on input from business leaders in the region, are available for anyone to use, and there has been interest from other districts wanting to pull from it.
Last year, the school also added a virtual school, which now has about 50 students, said School of Innovation business and computer science instructor Sabra Eaton. The virtual school makes the curriculum accessible remotely. Many of the students enrolled in the program are homeschooled, and the School of Innovation curriculum can lend the “strength, support and accreditation of Springdale School District” to those students’ secondary education, Rollins said.
Students and parents have digital access to School of Innovation teachers, and students are considered as much a part of the school as the in-person students, Eaton said.
“It’s not a canned curriculum” and leaves plenty of room for personalized learning, she said.
Many of the School of Innovation’s programs and methods revolve around community involvement and partnerships with other organizations. Eaton said the system could serve nationwide as a model for community involvement, because of programs like Real World Wednesday, where the school invites industry insiders into the school weekly and because of events like the School of Innovation career fair, which had 60 booths last year, comprised of a few colleges, but mostly local employers.
Rollins said career-readiness and college-prep should not be discussed in separate conversations. The school’s philosophy centers on preparing students for the next steps, no matter their location.
The school offers three different college pathways for students wanting to earn a college degree, including a track that allows them to take some NorthWest Arkansas Community College classes for 34 cents on the dollar, compared to what other students pay. In effect, students could potentially earn an associate’s degree before graduating high school. Seven career-readiness paths include programs for engineering/robotics, pre-mechatronics and light diesel, computer engineering and entrepreneurship, construction technology and medical fields, including a licensed practical nurse program. Several tracks are made possible through a partnership with Northwest Technical Institute in Springdale.
The goal is to help them feel comfortable with those transitions by exposing them to situations in a safe environment, with the support of their teachers, Rollins said.
“I always say, ‘Graduation day is not good enough. If we fail to bring them to that next step, we’ve failed.’”
Through work with the National Center for Construction Education & Research, 50 students last year earned certifications in construction, Rollins said.
School of Innovation offers many of its programs through partnerships with organizations, including Project Lead the Way and others. However, one of the School of Innovation’s top priorities is engagement with the local business scene.
In addition to inviting the business community in to interact with students, the School of Innovation builds its curriculum using input from them and often partners for specific learning opportunities, like working with Ozark Electric Cooperative, to demonstrate how solar energy works for the students. Exposure to real-world industries “opens students’ eyes to what possibilities are out there,” Rollins said.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of not knowing certain jobs are out there, Rollins said. Many don’t even think, for example, about potential careers in agriculture, a top industry in Arkansas.
“Too many of our kids don’t know where their food comes from,” he said.
Rollins said industry partnerships have proved fruitful. He’s also been approached by employers who say they’d be willing to take a cohort, for example, of five or 10 students and provide scholarships for them to be trained for specific advanced manufacturing jobs and then, ideally, offer them jobs subsequently.