by Johnny Key
It is an exciting time for public school education in Arkansas. From robust computer-science programs and enhanced use of technology in the classroom to collaboration with community-based partners and learning opportunities beyond the classroom, our students have endless opportunities for learning.
To assist our schools with ensuring every student graduates and is prepared for college as well as career and community engagement, the Arkansas Department of Education provides leadership, support and services to schools, districts and communities. We accomplish this mission by ensuring Arkansas’ academic standards are rigorous; teachers have access to essential professional development opportunities, and state and federal funds are distributed accurately and timely.
The Reading Initiative for Student Excellence, or R.I.S.E. Arkansas, is one example. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the department launched the initiative in January 2017 to strengthen reading instruction, create community collaboration and build a culture of reading.
Students, parents, educators and the community have embraced the campaign. We have seen school and community partnerships strengthen, reading instruction completely revamped and student learning improve. Since the launch of the campaign, more than 300 educators have become R.I.S.E. Academy trainers. These trainers, in turn, have trained more than 13,000 teachers across the state in foundational reading practices. The work of these trainers and teachers is evident. More than 350 schools were named R.I.S.E. Schools for their commitment to reading, with 10 receiving special recognition at the recent ADE Summit.
Not only is Arkansas’ reading initiative paving the way for student success, Gov. Hutchinson’s Computer Science Initiative is garnering national and international attention. In the 2018-19 school year, more than 8,000 students enrolled in computer-science courses. This represents a 30-percent increase over the previous school year and a 620-percent increase since 2014-15. Arkansas exceeded its five-year enrollment goal of 7,500 students in just four years. Not only has the enrollment number increased, the number of certified computer-science teachers increased from approximately 20 to more than 370.
In addition to the enrollment increase, we have witnessed the growth of new partnerships with businesses that could lead to greater education and economic opportunities. Just recently, the governor hosted the first ever computer-science summit in Little Rock. Because of Arkansas’ strong computer-science program, the summit garnered attendance by education, policy and technology leaders from around the country and Canada.
These successes would not have been possible without the dedication, commitment and expertise of Arkansas’ teachers. They share their time, resources and talents and give their very best to each student every day. Without them, students would not succeed in and out of the classroom.
Recruiting and retaining highly effective teachers, however, has been a challenge. After years of decreases in teachers entering the profession, we are seeing signs of a turnaround. Enrollment in educator-preparation programs has increased for the first time in more than five years, reflecting a reversal from the downward trend seen previously. In addition to this growth, we also are seeing an upward trend in enrollment in special education programs, an increase of 13 percent from 2017 and an increase of 55 percent from 2015.
In addition to strengthening partnerships with education service cooperatives, institutions of higher education and alternative-education preparation providers, this enrollment uptick can be attributed to multiple efforts. In February 2017, ADE launched the Teach Arkansas campaign to encourage more people to enter the teaching profession, remain in the profession and return if they have left. Through the campaign, we have made it easier for those who have left teaching to return; we have increased our professional development for teachers; and we have hosted numerous lecture series around the state to promote the education profession.
These efforts, along with the launch of the new Educator Career Continuum, expansion of the Arkansas Teacher Cadets program at high schools and alternative preparation and first-time licensure options for aspiring special education teachers are making an impact.
While we know there is still a lot of work left to do to ensure every student graduates ready for life beyond high school, we are hopeful for the future. By staying the course with proven strategies, seeking and implementing new opportunities, and strengthening partnerships, we will lead the nation in student-focused education.
Johnny Key is the Secretary of Education for the state of Arkansas.