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Working toward student success: REL Southwest Governing Board meeting

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By Leslie Nail | August 19, 2019

The REL Southwest Governing Board meeting was held in Little Rock, Arkansas, on May 16 and 17. These biannual meetings bring together a diverse group of education practitioners, leaders, policymakers, content experts, and researchers from across the REL Southwest region. Board membership also includes state education agency (SEA) chiefs or their representatives from Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

The Governing Board guides the work of REL Southwest, and these meetings help ensure our work is relevant to and actionable for educators in our region. The sessions allow board members and staff to hold in-depth discussions on the needs of each state and the region, to review ongoing projects and suggest directions for new work within REL Southwest researcher-practitioner partnerships, and to be better informed about priorities and initiatives underway in each state. To gain the maximum benefit from the cross-state meetings, the Governing Board convenes one of their two meetings each year in a different REL Southwest state. The host state kicks off the meeting with an educational activity and presentations that highlight their work and orient the group to the central mission of the REL program: student success.

To open the two-day meeting, our Arkansas hosts arranged a tour of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. This site commemorates the events of 1957 when nine Black high school students, the “Little Rock Nine,” desegregated Little Rock High School and became a symbol in the struggle for civil rights in America. The board’s experience was made especially impactful because it coincided with the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education.

The meeting agenda included two presentations that allowed attendees to hear about the state’s education priorities from different perspectives: the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) and ForwARd Arkansas, a nonprofit group working on the ground with parents, educators, philanthropy, government, business leaders, and community residents. The board learned how these organizations complement each other as they both work toward the common goal of improving education systems and student achievement.

Gina Windle, Governing Board member and ADE chief of staff, shared key initiatives and priorities for the state agency. The GUIDE for Life program gives students a five-step plan for developing the real-world, soft skills essential for personal success. ADE is implementing the High Reliability Schools framework, an evidence-based approach to support districts’ continuous cycles of inquiry and guide school improvement planning. A network of Equity Labs involves school representatives and key stakeholders to increase awareness among school districts of the state’s educational equity issues and to help districts use local data to identify and address equity gaps. Windle’s presentation included updates on Arkansas legislation related to requirements to develop literacy plans and to offer digital or other alternative educational courses to students who have been expelled.

Board member Cory Biggs, associate director of ForwARd Arkansas, shared the mission and activities of that organization. ForwARd is a public–private sector partnership established by the Arkansas State Board of Education, Walton Family Foundation, and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to improve student achievement and serve as a champion for equity, opportunity, and innovation. Working toward its vision that all Arkansas graduates are prepared for postsecondary success, ForwARd seeks “to inspire engaged and empowered communities to lead their own improvement efforts, strengthened by the alignment of public policy.” The group has identified an initial cohort of five diverse ForwARd Communities and three partnering school districts to serve as demonstration models for innovative education strategies and successful community partnerships. ForwARd Communities will engage with one another and with other Arkansas communities through a Learning Network. To encourage alignment of public policy, ForwARd used a collaborative process to gather input from many stakeholders and experts, developing common-sense policy recommendations in four areas: access to high-quality Pre-K; elevating student employability as a learning outcome; strengthening the educator pipeline; and improving data systems.

In addition to presentations from our Arkansas Governing Board members, we presented and discussed REL Southwest partnership logic models and strategic engagement activities that each partnership is developing to help bring student and teacher outcomes to the forefront of the work. Strategic engagement activities ensure the work is focused on improving student outcomes by targeting stakeholders in the practice and policy communities best positioned to adopt, implement, and support evidence-based practices. REL Southwest also discussed efforts to increase outreach to local education agencies in our region and seek opportunities to develop new, more flexible partnership structures in response to the varied needs of our stakeholders.

Governing Board members are indispensable to helping REL Southwest bring change and transformation to their region that can benefit teachers and students. We value these relationships and look forward to our next meeting.

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Author Information

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Leslie Nail

Communications Specialist | REL Southwest