Within the last five years, many business and political leaders have begun to recognize that the American educational system is one-size-fits-all. But Telcoe Federal Credit Union has collaborated with the Little Rock Regional Chamber and several other business, political and education leaders to create the Academies of Central Arkansas.
Structurally conceived by Ford Next Generation Learning, the idea is to educate high school students with relevant and career-oriented learning. The program is designed to give Arkansas students more options beyond college at the time of their high school graduation.
The program works with the four public school districts in Pulaski County. Launched for incoming high school freshmen in the fall of 2020, the program had been in the works for three years, according to James Reddish, executive vice president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber.
The Ford program, from which Academies of Central Arkansas was spun, started in 2005. Reddish said it essentially has codified a way of transforming the high school education system by offering classes that emphasize relevance in students’ career goals.
“And it’s now been implemented in over 40 communities across the country, literally coast to coast,” he said. “2018 is when we started to explore this idea. The idea gained momentum after a trip to Nashville with all four of the school districts’ superintendents and educational leaders. Fast-forward into early 2019, and Entergy Arkansas paid for an initial benchmarking study that reaffirmed that this was a possibility.”
Reddish worked alongside other prominent, local education leaders including his Chamber colleague, Director of Workforce Development and Education Kristi Barr, to flesh out this unique educational model. Since the launch in Central Arkansas, student performance has gone up. Additionally, students who may not feel that college is right for them have the skills needed to pursue other careers by the time they receive their high school diploma.
“It really represents a culture change, not necessarily a program, in that it’s much more permanent, and it provides the opportunity in every community where this has been done with higher GPAs, higher college-bound rate, industry-recognized credentials, tardiness goes down, discipline issues go down, and absentees goes down,” Reddish said. “Students are engaged in what they’re learning in a way that they, frankly, wouldn’t in the [traditional] high school model. And that has been the case for the last 160 years. We have to be invested in our students. As business leaders and civic leaders, we need to be providing for our students the chance to attain wealth, a stable family and an available wage.”
While Ford Next Generation Learning provides a guideline for how the educational structure should be, it is ultimately those invested in the education of the local community who play a prominent role in creating the curriculum, Reddish noted.
“We also wanted to make sure that faith-based leaders, politicians and business leaders were also a part of this process. And so since early 2019, this has really been a community transformation effort that ultimately led toward this physical manifestation last fall in 2020,” Reddish says.
Participating schools have designated “academies” geared towards certain careers such as health care, manufacturing, engineering, technology and more. Plus, students also learn about financial literacy. The approach allows students to see how and why everything that they learn is relevant, Reddish said.
“This change in educational perspective is not limited to some students or to advanced students — it’s provided to each and every student, especially students who might not have the same opportunities otherwise.”
This allows professional organizations such as Telcoe to adopt an academy, making it possible for students to job shadow and receive special training and education in the fields in which they want to pursue a career.
Michele Beasley, Telcoe’s vice president of consumer lending, said the credit union is no stranger to getting involved in the educational developments of Arkansas students.
“Every year, April is YOUTH month at Telcoe Federal Credit Union, which serves to encourage young members to develop healthy saving habits,” Beasley said. “Telcoe is also invested in helping our younger members understand the ins and outs of personal finance.”
Telcoe, the state’s second-largest credit union in terms of assets and members, has always prioritized financial literacy and education, Beasley noted. Telcoe is also working to promote education in Arkansas with organizations such as Junior Achievement.
“We are also active in the local schools, where we offer a reality fair that show students the financial realities of the world with exercises like buying a mock house or car, creating a budget and so on,” she said. “Each April, we offer free savings accounts to those under 18, and for many years, we have offered a youth certificate-of-deposit special that offers a high dividend rate to help promote youth savings and help parents and grandparents to begin having conversations in the home about money.
“We want to help improve the savings rate among our members and allow them the ability to pay themselves first by saving through payroll deduction. Financial wellness is fundamental to the opportunity for individuals to pursue their dreams.”