There is a strong link between economic opportunity and education, and even though Northwest Arkansas has several top-rated schools in the state and some of the nation’s largest corporations there is still much work to be done, according to Dr. Evelyn Jorgenson, president of NorthWest Arkansas Community College.
Jorgenson and Michael Poore, superintendent of Bentonville Schools, were the featured speakers at Friday’s (Aug. 1) Business Matters breakfast, a monthly business forum of the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce.
Just 54.3% of Arkansas high school graduates head to college or trade schools, and while Jorgensen said that rate is slowly improving it’s still 14% below the national average.
“We have plenty of work to do especially when you look at the gaps between open job positions in this region compared to the number of students graduating in certain fields,” she said.
In a workforce report compiled by the Northwest Arkansas Council earlier this year, surveys of local employers indicated there were 1,000 open positions in information technology (IT) with companies located in the two-county area. Roughly 120 local students graduated in that field last year, Jorgenson shared. In the culinary arts the report found 167 open positions, against 19 graduates last year. Jobs in the skilled trades number about 1,000 openings among local manufacturers, with just 87 students graduating with those credentials last year.
“In many cases students can get a one-year certificate and go right to work. They can go on and finish an associate’s or bachelor’s degree if they want while they are gainfully employed,” Jorgenson said.
She and Poore agreed that students have a plethora of options, but it’s up to the community to help get that message across. NWACC works in tandem with several high schools in the region on concurrent enrollment programs that allow a high school student to take college level courses at the same they are in high school.
“Our valedictorian this past year was a young lady (Amanda Dias-Jayasinghe) that graduated with two associate’s degrees from NWACC concurrently as she finished high school in Bentonville. She tutored adult education students at NWACC as well. The amazing part of this story is that she came to Bentonville as a first grader from Sri Lanka and didn’t speak English and she’s headed to Harvard this fall,” Poore said.
He said the entire community helped to raise this little girl who was following her dreams to Harvard.
Jorgenson said “community” is the junior college’s middle name and it’s the community that NWACC listens to and seeks to serve, which includes the full gamut of education options from GED completion to professional education credits, in addition to transferrable course work and 23 certificate programs.
ON THE MOVE
The community college plans to move its culinary arts program from Center for NonProfits in Rogers to downtown Bentonville’s newly created market district. Jorgenson said the culinary arts and hospitality program has outgrown its space at the Center for NonProfits and looks forward to anchoring a new culinary arts venue to be located in a former Tyson Foods plant now under renovation.
She said the board recently authorized administrators to negotiate for space in the former Tyson Foods plant at 802. S.E. Eighth St. near downtown Bentonville. The move to the larger venue will allow the college to increase enrollment from 185 to 260 students. The Tyson plant was tapped for redevelopment late last year providing a large venue that features culinary arts, fresh food vendors and overflow from the farmer’s market.
NWACC also plans to move its adult education from the Center for NonProfits in Rogers to the college’s main campus in Bentonville. Jorgenson said the move will take place next year and space has been earmarked in the Shewmaker Center for Workforce Technologies.
“It’s important for these students to feel like they are part of the college and getting them on the main campus could be helpful to those students considering college in the future,” she said.
Poore said the much anticipated Bentonville West High School will open in 2016 with between 1,400 and 1,500 students in grades nine and 10 to start. With the district adding about 500 students a year, he expects the school population will rise to 2,500 within a few years.
The district plans to release the new boundary plan in October, but said in the first few years students may be given a choice to attend to the new school.
By 2017 he said the district will need another elementary school, and there are two areas of concern, heavy growth in the southwest side of the district and very long bus rides for small children living in Northwest Bella Vista.
“We have several small children that must catch the bus between 6 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. each morning in Bella Vista. This is not a good situation that has to be considered,” Poore said.
He said the district already has the funds to construct the elementary school, so a tax hike is not needed.
Bentonville High School has an enrollment of 4,300, making it the largest in the state. District wide there are 15,000 students. He said there is a reason the school district is growing and it’s linked to top test scores, a No. 1 ranking in the country for athletic accomplishments and a full array of performing arts accomplishments.
“Our good schools are essential for local companies looking to recruit and retain top talent. A strong educational system is a cornerstone that helps supports longterm economic growth,” Poore said.