NWA business community invested in good schools

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 120 views 

When students perform well in school, teachers and parents are naturally delighted but there’s another sector of society that is also pleased with the success: the business community.

In Northwest Arkansas, the business community is deeply invested in making sure that the local school systems are excellent. Programs to enhance and encourage academic excellence are available from local chambers of commerce and other economic development entities.

The local business community has a lot to brag about when it comes to Northwest Arkansas schools. According to the 2012 Northwest Arkansas Report Card, schools in Benton and Washington counties are “outstanding in several areas when compared to other districts statewide.”

The education report card is published by the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, in partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Council. The report card is one of several education-related initiatives from the Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy being pursued by the Northwest Arkansas Council, its Educational Excellence Work Group and their partners.

“Schools and the quality of them are absolutely important to attracting talent to our region. If a Northwest Arkansas company can offer wages and benefits that are high enough to convince someone to accept a job and move here, that's great, but we know a person with a family absolutely has to think about the entire package that is Northwest Arkansas and that goes far beyond compensation,” said Rob Smith, spokesman for the NWA Council. “Can my spouse find a good job? Are there fun things to do on the weekend? Is crime low? Can the family travel to visit relatives and friends and are the flights from the local airport what are needed? And, maybe most important of all, can my children get the education they need that will ultimately lead to success in life?

“The short answer to all of those questions is absolutely, but much of what the Northwest Arkansas Council does is work with partners to keep improving education, amenities, roads, the airport and economic opportunity,” Smith continued. “We want to attract new companies, of course, but we also want to make our region attractive so companies already here can find the talent they need.”

Each of the major chambers have programs designed to strengthen the schools and forge a bond between the business community and local school systems. Each chamber has a focus for their efforts, but they largely involve recruitment and retention within the business community.

“There are tremendous business benefits in having good schools in a community,” said Chung Tan, Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce economic development manager. “Both the public and private schools or districts in Fayetteville are preparing and developing the workforce and leaders for the future.  The Fayetteville Chamber is working across all levels of the school system from K-12 to U of A.”

Tan and Steve Clark, president and CEO for the chamber, offered several examples of chamber-endorsed programs within the schools. The Fayetteville Chamber works with Washington Elementary and Happy Hollow Elementary to bring Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of a Leader program to those schools.

“This program is an effort to help develop leaders starting at kindergarten level,” Tan said. “Incidentally, the program encompasses everyone in the school, from the students to the teachers, to the cafeteria and housekeeping workers.”

Clark said teaching good problem-solving skills and good leadership habits are vital to building a future workforce.

“If you’ve got great schools and teach great problem-solving skills, you have a workforce,” he said.

The Covey program starts at the kindergarten level to start teaching the skills early.

“That’s my workforce for 2023 and 2024,” Clark said.

The skills they learn include developing good habits such as doing their homework.

“It’s ‘you’re a leader and this is what a leader does,’” Clark concluded.

For the middle schools, the Chamber works with individual teachers and teacher advisory boards to familiarize the students with local employers, particularly in the transportation sector covering air, rail, ground and water, Tan said.

“One of the objectives is to introduce the various types of jobs available in this industry, the career path, and the skill sets required to apply for these jobs,” she said.

At Fayetteville High School, there are new Small Learning Communities designed to align students with skill sets that meet the demands of local employers, which sit on advisory boards with the school to help enhance the curriculum. The chamber also organized plant tours for high school students to visit local plants in order for them to see the opportunities in the sector.

The chamber also works with the UA and local employers to place students as interns with local employers so that they can learn and hopefully be gainfully employed after they graduate, Tan said.

“All these efforts by the Chamber’s Economic Development team are to work on workforce development, to direct these students to academic or trade schools for further gain skill sets that make them employable when they graduate later,” Tan explained. “The Economic Development team works on keeping the graduates in Fayetteville/Northwest Arkansas.”

Krista Khone, vice president of special projects and leadership at the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, said that when someone calls the chamber to ask about a relocation packet, one of the first three questions they ask is about the quality of the school system.

“It’s not only important for the people moving in to now that they have a very strong district, it’s important for companies looking to relocate and expand here. If you don’t have the ability to educate and expand that workforce, they won’t give you a second look,” she said.

Having a strong higher education system is important, but so is having an excellent K-12 foundation, she said.

“There are companies and industries that don’t require a college degree and they pull directly from the K-12 for their workforce,” Khone said.

The Chamber has an education committee that consists of school and local school leaders. They discuss issues that are relevant to the local schools and how the Chamber can help. The programs range from chamber members participating in job shadowing and career day activities, to the chamber hosting teacher fairs and a “chamber night” at a local school board meeting.

“I think the businesses definitely have a good relationship with the schools. Northwest Arkansas as a whole does,” Khone said. “That makes us unique but it’s also what has made us successful. Business leaders are very concerned about helping the schools and equipping the students for the next phase in life.”

At the Rogers/Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, there is a mantra that says a world-class community and world-class workforce attracts world-class companies.

“That’s about economic investment and creating a world-class community,” said Brad Phillips, vice president of marketing communications.

The Chamber works closely with entities like the Arkansas Small Business Technology Development Center and the NWA Council to help expand the job market in the region. They also work closely with the schools to provide incentives for students and teachers; as well as learning and leadership opportunities for students. The programs include everything from awards ceremonies for students, teacher appreciation events, and the First Leadership program for high school students.

Through the Leadership Benton County program that is sponsored by local chambers, business leaders are introduced to issues that face the community, including challenges in education.

This year’s LBC class is working with local schools on crosswalk safety and volunteering with the Snack Pack program, said Megan Cuddy, vice president of community development for the Chamber. There is also the First Leadership program, which is a similar program designed for high school juniors.

Natalie Burchit is also involved with community development programs at the Chamber. The Chamber has an education committee that coordinates several events and ceremonies throughout the year for the schools, she said.

“It’s extremely important,” she said. “(The businesses) recognize that our students are their next employees. One of our biggest efforts is to help connect local businesses with their future employment base.”

The positive reinforcement methods seem to be working. For example, the Chamber works with local businesses to offer academic awards for students who achieve a certain level of grade-point average. There has been a 16% increase in the number of students awarded, she said. This means students are realizing the benefits and are working harder.

Steve Cox, vice president of economic development for the Rogers/Lowell chamber, agreed that the school systems play a major role in being able to attract new companies to the area.

“The education and quality of local schools definitely has an impact on why businesses will take a look at your region,” he said. “Businesses are in the business of making money. If the education is poor, the existing workforce may not be what they require.”

The type of education that a potential new company cares about the most depends on what the company needs. This is why it’s important to have a strong education system at all grade levels.

“White collar looks more at college completion rates,” Cox said. “On the manufacturing side, they look more at K-12 and the tech colleges to see what sort of training programs and feeder programs are available.

“These businesses want to be successful,” he continued. “They don’t look to relocate for just two or three years. They want to make sure they have highly trained employees down the road.”

A strong school system also helps new companies convince their existing employees that moving to a new area is a good idea.

“It allows talented people to come,” Cox said. “People who move here want to make sure there will be high quality education.”