The Future School of Fort Smith graduated its 79 students May 14, an inaugural graduating class that was offered about $1.9 million in scholarships. The graduating seniors all left the school with an average of 13 hours of tuition free college credit and $600,000 in savings on college tuition.
Three of the graduates had also earned an associate degree from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith when they said goodbye to their high school, said Superintendent Boyd Logan.
Graduating seniors received scholarships to Arkansas schools such as the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Arkansas Tech University. But they also received offers to schools across the country, including Manhattanville College in New York, he said.
Graduating senior Mario Ruano-Arens received a full-ride to Yale University but instead opted to accept the full-ride scholarship to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Logan said. Ruano-Arens said the major difference in his education at the Future School than a traditional public high school was the internship. He spent three years of high school interning at Hanna Oil and Gas.
“I was interested in accounting, and I job shadowed at three or four places. Unfortunately, none of them wanted a 15-year-old intern. But I was able to intern at an oil and gas company, and I’ve learned a lot about accounting in the oil and gas industry,” he said.
In fact, Ruano-Arens believes his internship and the experience it afforded him was key to him being accepted at and given a scholarship to Wharton.
“It was a really important part of my application. I have worked in the real world, and they actually put me to work. I wasn’t just filing papers. I was working on audits and more. I gained a lot of skills,” he said.
Some of those important skills were the soft skills needed to succeed, like talking to people and learning to work in a team, he said. Ruano-Arens will work this summer for Hanna Oil and Gas. The company hired him to help predict natural gas prices.
“They are going to teach me how to forecast the prices,” he said, noting he intends to earn a degree in actuary science at Wharton.
Although he hopes to go to work for a large company once he earns his bachelor’s degree and then earn a master’s in business administration, Ruano-Arens said his internship experience helped cultivate a love for Fort Smith, the community and the people in it.
“I want to someday open my own business, probably in Fort Smith,” he said. “I’ve really grown to love Fort Smith and see myself potentially coming back here.”
Internships like Ruano-Arens’ are a key aspect of education at the Future School.
“Every student interns every Wednesday,” Logan said, noting that there are four or five students who do not have an internship, but the structure of the school is for the students to all intern.
This year students accrued thousands of hours of professional internship experience in about 135 different local companies and organizations, Logan said. Incoming 10th graders spend the first few weeks of school meeting with their advisor exploring careers they might have an interest in pursuing. They choose 10 “manifestations of that career in the area,” call those businesses and conduct an information interview, Logan said. Students then job shadow three or four of those business, and then an internship coordinator contacts business and helps set up internships for the students.
“We have some ready baked internships we know are available, but we work with a lot of different businesses. We have a lot more flexibility than some schools. It’s kind of a grassroots approach to workforce development,” Logan said.
Founded in 2016, Future School of Fort Smith is a tuition-free, public charter high school centered on a personalized approach to learning via student-designed internships, personalized learning plans, and an advisor for each student. It serves students in grades 10-12. The school began with 45 students. It ends this year with 218, and administrators expect the number to be higher next year. The school will soon start on a building campaign in order to secure funding to expand their building on North Seventh Street, Logan said. The school hopes to complete the expansion for the 2021-2022 school year. The school does receive state funding but does not receive any monies from local millage.
“We get about 70% per student of what traditional public schools receive,” Logan said. “That does make us operate a little leaner.”
The school does have private investors, who are “investing in the future of Fort Smith,” he added.
Students have a typical AB Block schedule with 1.5 hour classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. They take their core classes and have access to a variety of electives. They also spend several hours a week in advisory periods.
“There is a lot of advising. It’s kind of like counseling. We talk a lot,” said Mia Stout, a 10th grade student. “I always thought that teachers didn’t really care about you. They were there to teach you. They didn’t care if you graduated or what you wanted to do. Here, they’re nice. They care. We are like family.”
The school has 12 full-time advisors; the number will increase to 13 for the 2019-2020 school year, Logan said, stating they are the “nuts and bolts” of the school.
“We are really dedicated to cultivating our student’s limitless potential,” he said. “There is a strong relationship between the advisor and the advisee. It’s a whole other level. They are mentors, advisors, college and career counselors, social worker and role model. It’s really a heavy lift for our advisors.”
Students also have time during the weak for academic enrichment, where they can work on specialized projects, take part in club activities or receive extra help in studies as needed, Logan said. What makes the education experience at the Future School different is the relationships, Logan said. Whether they are between students and advisors or students with other students, the relationships at the Future School are key, Logan said.
“It’s a more liberal school than others. That is something a lot of students are looking for. Students can better express themselves and their interests,” said Jose Esparza, an 11th-grader.
The ability to express who they are goes along with the core aspects of the school’s education — personalization, authenticity and professionalism, said Principal Allison Montiel.
“Students may see the differences when they first see each other, but when they talk more, they see they have more in common. It’s a space where they feel safe to express themselves, express their authenticity,” Montiel said.
That acceptance leads to another perk — more friends, said 10th-grader Zane Rivera.
“I have a lot more friends now. In public school, I was picked on, bullied. My first day here, I shook hands with 10 people at least and made friends,” he said.