Originially published in Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette on February 24th, 2023
We can all agree that our traditional public school education model serves many Arkansas students especially well while also agreeing that it sometimes fails to serve every student as well as it could. This reality sits at the core of efforts to innovate within our state's educational system, and those efforts began decades prior to Gov. Sarah Sanders' LEARNS Act being presented earlier this week.
This moment, however, provides the opportunity for all of us to learn from these decades of efforts to better serve our students, better prepare students for the workforce, and recognize when some families need alternative choices.
I lead the Arkansas Virtual Academy, a free online public school born out of this spirit of education innovation 20 years ago. Long before the pandemic lockdown forced brick-and-mortar schools to transition to online education overnight, someone asked whether rapidly expanding Internet access could be utilized to teach K-12 classes around the state. Yes, it was challenging to begin, but it did prove successful, and today our school provides 4,000 Arkansas students across every county with a choice that's right for them.
Thanks to that innovation, we found a way to serve those students in a way that their local school could not for whatever reason. The important thing is that now those students have options and opportunities they did not have before.
In addition to providing more choices for families trying to support their children's education, the LEARNS Act also focuses a lot on preparing those students for the future. Although increased pay for teachers earned most of the headlines, and this is unarguably a necessary step to attract and, even more importantly, retain quality teachers in our state, one of the most exciting elements of the proposal focused on career readiness and workforce development. This is an area where we at the Arkansas Virtual Academy have seen a valuable impact on students, and we couldn't be more excited to see such programs implemented across the state.
If made into law, the plan would require career-ready pathways as an option for all high school students. That means in addition to earning their diploma, students will work toward developing targeted career and technical skills through course and project work. Additionally, the implementation of the career diploma puts increased emphasis on work-ready outcomes. As Arkansas works to attract new industries and fuel economic development, this kind of focus is exactly what we need in place to support those efforts.
While the idea of integrating these career-ready pathways and diploma tracks will be new and unfamiliar for many schools, I can assure you that it is an innovation that provides immense value for our students. I can say that because the Arkansas Virtual Academy has provided career-ready solutions for our high school students for years. From software development and cybersecurity to medical office administration and digital marketing, we're giving students the opportunity to make their public school experience serve them better by developing the specific skills their future employers will need.
Last year our school was the No. 1 public high school in Arkansas for providing students with iCEV industry certification classes, successfully completing over 700 certifications. These certifications have allowed our students to partner with businesses, gain skills through internships and build their resumes with real work experience. Now imagine every high school in our state providing that kind of access to real career and workforce readiness training. Instead of lagging behind other states in education and economic development, Arkansas would quickly become a positive force for change in our region and a model for other states to follow.
As our lawmakers debate the elements of the proposed legislation, let's all make sure to focus on this effort to innovate within our education system and what that innovation can mean for our students. We know we can do better for them, but we need to find out how best to serve them and prepare our students for the future.
Amy Johnson is head of the Arkansas Virtual Academy.
To learn more about Arkansas Virtual Academy, visit https://arva.k12.com/.