Fort Smith School District expands career development course as part of Vision 2023; discusses Peak Innovation Center, partnership with UAFS

FORT SMITH — School District officials have reassessed their strategy for career development and student success since the district opened the Peak Innovation Center and moved sixth grade into the middle school and ninth grade into the high school as part of the district’s Vision 2023 plan.

Stephanie Freeman, a career development facilitator for the district, explained some of the recent changes and upcoming plans during Monday’s School Board meeting.

Vision 2023 was a plan paid for through a 5.558-mill property tax increase voters approved in 2018 that generated roughly $121 million before expiring.

Freeman said one goal of Vision 2023 was to improve career pathways, which the district did by creating a career technical education curriculum with a team of educators and business partners. She said the team discussed what they want career development to look like for students and researched similar programs across the country.

Peak opened to students in late March and is a collaboration between the School District and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. It serves roughly 280 students from 22 school districts across Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Scott and Sebastian counties through the university’s Western Arkansas Technical Center program.

Peak houses courses in a variety of career fields, such as automation and robotics, computer integrated machining and unmanned aerial systems.

Freeman said the goal is to have all students get an individualized career development experience. New classes were created at the middle school level: a career awareness class for sixth-graders, a career exploration class for seventh-graders and a career connection class for eighth-graders, she said.

Freeman said the eighth grade class is a state requirement already part of the district’s curriculum, but was expanded from a semester to a year-long class. She said middle school students are also offered a STEM class.

“In order to help students transition from that eighth to ninth grade, we started last year with principles classes,” Freeman said. “We have started principles of advanced manufacturing, health care and IT. So those classes of course are online with the programs that we offer at Peak.”

Students in grades six through nine take assessments to determine what their interests and skills are, then plan what classes they want to take throughout high school, Freeman said.

Board member Talicia Richardson asked if the tests are accessible for students who don’t speak English or those for whom English is their second language.

“Last week, I met one of those students,” Richardson said. “And because of that, and we’re measuring them on something that they have no idea what they’re reading, I think it’s our responsibility to make every attempt to make sure that when we are putting them in a box, that that is a true reflection of what that student is or their potential, regardless of the language.”

Amye Drackett, the district’s other career development facilitator, said the assessment is mostly picture- and number-based, but instructions can be translated into another language. She said English-speaking students with a lower reading level are also able to understand the instructions.

The district has also partnered with the Fort Smith Area Chamber of Commerce to create videos that highlight area industries and the professionals working there, Freeman said.

Freeman said the district focuses on planning careers in ninth and 10th grades because most career and technical education programs last for three years.

“And then of course 11th and 12th, this is where that higher level learning and expectations are,” Freeman said. “So we want our students embedded in the program of study, we want them to make it to the third, the fourth level, we want them to make it through the most appropriate AP options that align with their career goals. We want them to get those industry credentials in all of those things that happen at that higher level.”

Freeman had Northside High School senior Nadia Facio discuss her experience with the career development course. Facio takes Peak Innovation courses and has interned at ABB Motors and Mechanical Inc. She said she knew she wanted to work for ABB since she was in middle school.

“I had the full-on experience about what the plant was, and I got to see how we needed more women in the industry,” Facio said. “Going throughout this opportunity of my second year in this internship — I’m working out in the plant now — I was also given the opportunity to work with a lot more people, and I have a speech coming up over women in manufacturing and performance, which is pretty exciting.”

Facio said she’s enjoyed having hands-on experience because it helped her confirm she wants to work in manufacturing, especially robotics.

Board member Davin Chitwood asked what the process is if students decide to change career paths in 10th or 11th grade, and if that happens often.

Gary Udouj, director of career education and district innovation, said a student would meet with career development facilitators, students’ counselors and their parents to look at the best career path for them.

“We’re just trying to help them see what they’re good at, what their interests are and just kind of help them categorize that, but in no way is that tracking students and saying ‘you have to go in this direction and stay in it,'” Udouj said.

Board member Dalton Person asked what the district can do to further support partners such as the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and increase demand for the career development program.

Latisha Settlage, dean of the university’s College of Business and Industry, said the college tries to work around students’ schedules when offering classes at Peak, but that sometimes it’s not optional due to available resources.

“So we’re talking about ways that we can better partner so that if we can’t handle the budget on our side, perhaps Fort Smith can step in and do that,” Settlage said. “I think that right now is the most compelling way that we can help one another out.”