Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson visited Arkansas High School on Wednesday for the announcement of the Texarkana, Ark., School District's receiving a $14,787,921 federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Paid over a five-year period, the funds will be used for the district's Montage Project, an innovative Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program which will continue the STEM thread from the district's elementary schools to College Hill Middle School, North Heights Junior High and Arkansas High.
Hutchinson said TASD is the only school district in Arkansas to receive a MSAP grant, which he calls a "game changer" for not only the school, but also the community, the city and the state.
"Arkansas is forging ahead in STEM education and this not only fits in with what we want to do statewide and as a nation, but it also surges ahead in Texarkana, Ark., School District to lead our efforts here in the state," he said. He added that the grant, which is one of 32 the Department of Education gave to schools across the country this year, is also one of the largest given.
During his tenure, Hutchinson has worked to develop STEM programs throughout Arkansas, and said the state is at a critical point of success in STEM education.
"Arkansas is leading the nation in computer science education," he said. "We started this initiative because it is important for the jobs and skills that are needed for the future. Right now, we have 5,500 students in Arkansas taking some type of computer science courses. We want to see that number go up."
TASD Superintendent Dr. Becky Kesler said providing students with those technical skills has brought many challenges, and that with these additional funds, they'll be able to overcome those.
"We are currently preparing our students for jobs that don't yet exist, using technology that hasn't even been invented to solve problems that don't even know are problems. Our educational system is tasked with preparing students for a rapidly changing world where it is difficult to predict what challenges lie ahead," she said. "As more and more and more businesses become digital, the demand for workers with highly technical abilities is increasing faster than they can be supplied. For students to be successful in the future, they must learn to be thinkers and problem solvers."
In 2013, the district received $9.4 million to fund the Leadership and Entrepreneurship through the Arts and Design Project, which implemented at the elementary level. It focused on teaching students in kindergarten through eighth grade critical thinking skills, service, learning and citizenship as they prepared for success at the secondary level. The Montage grant will pick up where that one left off, and allow those students who learned STEM when they were younger to continue their studies at the middle and high school level.
Kesler said "the possibilities will be endless" with the Montage grant and that students will be able to choose from courses including programming, game design, interactive storytelling and digital art, along with those in engineering and manufacturing. Classrooms will also be transformed to look like work spaces in technical companies and the district will achieve a 1:1 student-to-technology ratio.
"Science, technology, engineering and math touches every aspect of our lives," she said. "STEM drives innovation in our fast-changing global economy. STEM is vital for the future of TASD, the future of Texarkana, the future of Arkansas and most importantly, STEM is vital for the future of our students."