July 13, 2016

West Memphis education partnership seeks to ‘make a difference in the Delta’

A two-year old partnership between the West Memphis school system and the local college is changing the face of high school education in the Eastern Arkansas town and could have a long-term effect on the career futures of its high school graduates–not to mention on the economic health of the area.

In 2014, school leaders paved the way for West Memphis High School to become The Academies of West Memphis by creating what is known as a conversion charter. Approved by the Arkansas Dept. of Education in January of that year, the charter frees the school to be more experimental and innovative. In the eyes of state education leaders, the academies and partner Arkansas State University Mid-South have essentially merged.

West Memphis School District superintendent Jon Collins, who served as principal of West Memphis High School from 2009 to 2013, said the intent behind the partnership is to add measurable value to a high school diploma.

“What we’re doing pushes against the traditional model,” Collins says. “We’re trying to make a difference in the Delta. We have to do better today for kids than we did yesterday.”

The way the district is doing that now involves a close partnership with ASU Mid-South, formerly Mid-South Community College. Because of the charter’s unique provisions around seat time requirements, students are able to earn college credit for career skills classes or college academic courses at the university while working toward their high school diploma—and it’s all tuition-free.

In addition to construction technology and automotive services training available on the high school campus, students have access to top-tier training resources at ASU Mid-South like aviation mechanics, diesel technology, welding and computer engineering.

West Memphis freshmen spend one class period each day learning about the school system’s three career academies—Technology and Transportation, Arts and Communications, and Health and Human Services. As sophomores or juniors they declare a career pathway, or more than one. They’re still required to take core academic courses, but their electives are based on their pathways and many of them are taught on the ASU Mid-South campus.

The district runs three buses in three time slots that shuttle students the 1.3 miles between the high school and the college. Classes are tuition-free thanks to the Thomas Goldsby Scholarship, funded by a local oilman. Students have to purchase textbooks, but Collins says the district is pursuing resources to help with those costs.

For students like rising senior Jeremie Paige, who is earning a certification in airframe mechanics alongside his high school diploma, the experience is life-changing. He’ll continue his education in power plant mechanics after graduation and will be able to take his skills to FedEx and earn a six-figure salary.

“As a sophomore I was learning basic aviation, like the history, blueprint reading, basic physics and basic aviation math and as a junior I was learning aviation mechanics,” he said. “Before aviation I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. But now I’m positive I want to be an aviation mechanic.”

Collins concedes Jeremie is an extreme example, but he’s confident that what the district is doing is an improvement for students.

“Here in the Delta especially, obtaining a good job—one capable of providing a family-sustaining wage—has become the ultimate standard for educational adequacy,” Collins said. “We feel like that’s the benchmark we should be aiming for.”

The district’s work is getting noticed. Collins says state education officials visited last fall and representatives from other districts visit regularly.

The seeds of the Academies were sown in the mid-2000s when Crittenden County was considered twice as a location for huge Toyota auto manufacturing facilities and lost out both times to other communities.

“This is essentially a 10-year overnight success story,” Collins said.

Later, Collins had a graduation night experience while he was a principal that left him wondering.

“This little girl was about to receive her diploma and she was crying uncontrollably. Just bawling,” Collins says. “I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘I am the first kid in my family to graduate from high school.’”

Of the roughly 330 students his district graduates each year, Collins says about 28 percent will go to college, three percent will join the military and less than one percent will enter a family-run business.

“The rest of them are getting a diploma, which is really just an invitation to make minimum wage for the rest of their lives,” he said. “That group is what the traditional model, in my view, doesn’t meet. I just asked my people if what we’re doing is enough.”

Planning for the new model and partnership took several years and involved district officials, city officials, college leaders, parents, students and the community at large. Intense planning started in earnest in July of 2013 and lasted six months, until the charter was approved.

The traditional academic path to a four-year college is still available. But for that other roughly 68 percent, Collins says the Academies offers something powerful—something that he hopes will eventually change the demographics of West Memphis and Eastern Arkansas.

“We recognize that we’re from a pretty harsh area of the state,” he said. “We don’t hide from that. We want to do our part as educators to provide for a better West Memphis in the future. The idea of every one having a bachelor’s degree is in the past. We have to provide better opportunities than they’ve ever had before.”