May 7, 2022 - News

4 innovative education programs in NW Arkansas

Illustration of a graduation cap but the tassel is a ladder.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Schools across the NWA region are leaning into students' talents — whether those lie in academic, technical or artistic fields — in an effort to prepare them for the workforce.

Why it matters: NWA needs more skilled workers for a variety of reasons, like an aging workforce within industrial fields or increased demand in restaurant kitchens.

The intrigue: Local businesses are all over this. They donate equipment, invest in education programs, and offer internships to students.

  • These four innovative and nontraditional education programs are just a snapshot of what's happening in NWA.

(1) Don Tyson School of Innovation in Springdale

Principal Kelly Boortz wants every Don Tyson School of Innovation student to leave with something besides a high school diploma — like college credit, Advanced Placement credit or a certification that qualifies them for a job the day they graduate.

Details: Don Tyson School of Innovation, a public charter school in Springdale, offers a two-year industrial maintenance program developed by Tyson Foods where students learn skills such as welding, electrical systems, automation, and manufacturing.

How it works: The students in the program can be ready to start work right out of high school earning more than $20 an hour with no student loans.

  • Students also get hands-on training and opportunities for certification in diesel mechanics.
  • Business students run the school's coffee shop — everything from ordering to point of sale, Boortz said.
  • Technology students are the school’s information technology help.
  • Agricultural students are learning hydroponics and vertical farming, which is increasingly becoming popular in urban areas without farmland.
  • Some students already have their drone pilots licenses and are working for NWA real estate companies.

(2) Ignite Professional Studies in Bentonville

Ignite allows juniors and seniors in the Bentonville school district to apply for a "career strand," which includes technology; virtual design and branding; health sciences; global business; education innovation; digital media; and culinary arts.

Why it matters: These are intended to be broad areas that can offer certifications or training that allow students to take a job during or right after high school or pursue further education in that area, director Teresa Hudson told Axios.

  • All students must take some concurrent college credit.

Health sciences, the most popular career strand, offers certified nursing assistant, emergency medical technician, and phlebotomy training. The virtual design and branding students take on marketing and social media projects for small businesses and nonprofits.

What's next: Ignite will expand in the fall to allow more students in some of its career strands and add aviation as well as construction and industrial management to its list.

(3) Brightwater Culinary School in Bentonville

From fry cook to five-star restaurant chef, there's a local kitchen that needs people who know what they're doing. Through hands-on learning, Brightwater is teaching the next generation to fill that need.

Why it matters: In the 1960s, Americans spent about 30% of their food dollars eating out. That grew to more than 50% in 2009.

  • The trend dipped during the pandemic, but jobs for chefs are projected to grow 25% by 2030, higher than most other occupations.

Details: Brightwater has room for up to 300 students, executive director Marshall Shafkowitz told Axios. Studies focus on one of four areas:

  • Artisanal food — farm-to-table with seasonal ingredients
  • Baking and pastry — the science of baking
  • Beverage arts — from mixology to pairing drinks with food
  • Culinary arts — connecting food with culture and community

If a student can attend full-time, they can graduate with an Associate of Applied Science degree in two academic years, which is 60 credit hours.

  • A technical certificate can be earned with 36 credit hours, and a certificate of proficiency with just 18.
  • Tuition is paid through Northwest Arkansas Community College and financial aid is available for qualified students.

Yes, and: Apprenticeships to start the journey of becoming a certified sous chef are also offered. They require up to 6,000 hours on the job, plus more than 400 hours of education at Brightwater.

What they're saying: Graduates have a world of options beyond just being a retail cook, Shafkowitz told us.

  • Becoming a food writer or photographer, for instance, or entrepreneur or educator.
  • Students with training are in demand from high-end retirement homes and resorts.

"People are always going to need to eat," Shafkowitz said. "So the need for trained craftsmen is always going to be there."

(4) NWA Community College's bike tech program

The first group of students is set to graduate on May 14 from Northwest Arkansas Community College's bicycle assembly and repair technician program.

  • The certificate that 20 students will earn is a passport to work in a number of bike industry jobs.

Why it matters: As bicycle components become more complicated and e-bikes more common, a pipeline of technicians is needed to maintain, repair, and assemble them.

  • Sales in the industry were up 54% in April 2021 compared to pre-pandemic in April 2019. That means many who started cycling are still pedaling.

Yes, and: NWACC's one-year certification is one of only two in the U.S. accredited by the Bicycle Industry Employers Association. It's designed to give students a standardized education so they have the technical readiness to work on a variety of bikes.

Details: Up to 24 students can enroll in the program, which begins in the fall semester and runs through the spring.

  • It requires 39 hours of study, which largely begin in the morning so students can work a part-time job.
  • Tuition is the same as NWACC's standard — $79 per credit hour for in-district residents.
  • In addition to bike maintenance, four core classes are required: public speaking, English composition, business organization and management, and college-level math.

What they're saying: "We're not just preparing mechanics, we're preparing people who can lead a service department in a bike shop," Ty Beringer, marketing specialist for the program, told Axios.

  • 75% of the first class are males. Students range in age from 14 (when he started the program) to a woman in her 60s, Beringer said.

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