Walton Family Foundation, Walmart to support new secondary school in downtown Bentonville

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,806 views 

Rumors have swirled for months about a new fully independent school in downtown Bentonville from grades six through 12. On Thursday (Aug. 11) Thaden School officials announced plans for a 30-acre greenfield building project slated to open to the first two grades in the fall of 2017.

Dr. Clayton Marsh, founding head of the Thaden School, told Talk Business & Politics the Walton Family Foundation completed a feasibility study in recent years that looked at gaps in the local educational system. The Foundation felt the region could benefit from another private school choice. He became the founding head of the school in January and over the past months, has assembled a leadership group who developed a vision and plan for the new school.

“Over the past several months, our team set out to learn as much as possible about Northwest Arkansas so that we could develop a vision and plan for a school that builds on the strengths and character of the region,” said Marsh, a native of Kansas City. “In Louise Thaden, we found a historic figure whose Arkansas spirit and soaring achievements will inspire our efforts to create a new school that gives students roots and wings.”

Born Louise McPhetridge in Bentonville in November 1905, Louise Thaden was an aviation pioneer, becoming the first woman to win the Bendix trophy, was the first female pilot licensed in Ohio, and the fourth woman in the U.S. to earn a transport pilot rating. She is the only female to simultaneously hold records for speed, altitude and endurance in an airplane. Her achievements earned her a place in the Smithsonian National Air Space Museum and she was inducted in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1999.

The school will begin with grades 7 and 9 in year one. Marsh said there will be 60 students per grade with an average class size of 15 students. In year two the school will add two more classes and continue doing so annually until fully enrolled at about 420 students by the 2020 to 2021 school year. He said the feasibility study showed roughly 68% of residents in Bentonville and the region at large were in favor of another private school option. He was clear it is a new educational alternative for all of Northwest Arkansas. While there will be tuition, he said 25% of students will receive financial aid because of help from the Walton Family Foundation and other financial partners.

Dr. Clayton Marsh is the head of the new Thaden School to open in Bentonville next year.
Dr. Clayton Marsh is the head of the new Thaden School to open in Bentonville next year.

Marsh said the tuition rates have not yet bet set as the leadership team continues to try and hammer out a budget. More financial details will be released later in regards to the construction costs and operating budgets.

Karen Minkel, Home Region Program director for the Walton Family Foundation and Thaden board chair, emphasized that equitable access to education will be a core principle for the school.

“We believe academic excellence includes diversity, and all of us on the Thaden team will work diligently to ensure children of all backgrounds have access to this opportunity,” said Minkel. “We are excited to offer this option, which was a well-defined need for Northwest Arkansas families.”

One of the ways in which Thaden will reach out to the region’s growing populations also include partnerships with organizations like the Cisneros Center. The center developed a program that works with Hispanic and Marshallese families to build awareness of all educational options available in Northwest Arkansas.

Walmart is donating the 30-acre site located at 8th and Main streets in the Bentonville Market District. Marsh said the downtown location is especially compelling because it is a short distance from a variety of cultural and educational resources, such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s upcoming contemporary art center; Brightwater, the new culinary arts program at NorthWest Arkansas Community College; and the Bentonville Public Library.

Because of the cultural significance of the site and school’s namesake, the campus will include a historic house where Thaden once lived. It is currently located on Central Avenue in downtown Bentonville. The Scott family will donate the house to the school. Thaden officials are developing a plan to store the structure until it can be relocated to its permanent site as part of the upcoming campus master plan. The relocation will need approval from the city of Bentonville.

The 30-acre school site was also the home of the Benton County Fair for nearly 80 years. Before 1924, it served as the location for three other educational institutions, including Bentonville High School when Thaden was a student.

Marsh said the development of the campus will begin with indoor and outdoor spaces that will support the school during its first two years. During this initial phase of operations, the institution will be located on its permanent site. The design and construction process for the rest of the campus will begin later this year and is expected to be complete by the fall of 2019.

Marsh also announced the first two members of his administrative team including the heads of the school’s middle grades (6-8) and upper grades (9-12). Jose Leonor has been hired as associate head of school and director of the middle school. Raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Leonor comes to Thaden from The Bishop’s School, one of Southern California’s oldest and finest independent schools. Dr. Lisa Herschbach joins Thaden as associate head of school and director of the upper school. With roots in Massachusetts and California, Herschbach comes to Thaden from Princeton University, where she was director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and associate dean of the College.

“Our team will design a balanced and engaging educational program that will enable students to explore vital connections between the humanities and the sciences,” Marsh said. “Jose brings to his work a remarkable understanding of what younger students from diverse backgrounds need to grow academically and socially, and Lisa knows what those students will need to prepare for the challenges of higher education.”

Marsh told Talk Business & Politics that the rigorous curriculum will be balanced between the humanities and the sciences.

“Balance is the key word and we really want the learning to take many forms that allows for integration of lecture blended with hands-on and project-oriented opportunities,” he said. “We will be an alternative to for those students who want a more intimate educational experience. We envision our students taking part in extracurricular activities like drama and debate and also playing sports which can be added as the enrollment increases.”

School officials also announced the hiring of chief finance and operations officer Jonathan Neville and office manager and admissions coordinator Ariel Rife.

Thaden’s leadership includes a board of directors with representatives from across the region. In addition to Minkel, the board includes community volunteer Elda Jurado Scott, who serves as vice chair; NOWDiagnostics Chief Financial and Administrative Officer Ann Bordelon, who serves as treasurer; and Scott Family Amazeum Executive Director Sam Dean, who serves as secretary.