By Kathy Smith, Walton Family Foundation Senior Program Officer
For most of her senior year at Batesville High School, Somyr Strickland led a double educational life.

By day, the 17-year-old Arkansas native was a 12th grade student studying English and Math and preparing for her high school graduation with her fellow classmates. By night, she would head to the University of Arkansas Community College-Batesville (UACCB) campus to learn the life-saving skills of an emergency medical technician, from splinting techniques to spine immobilization and bleeding control.

It was, Somyr admits, a “very demanding” schedule. But her hard work paid off.

On May 8, 2017, Somyr graduated from UACCB with her certificate as an EMT. Four days later, on May 12, she walked across the stage at Batesville High to receive her diploma.

“I would not be where I am at today if I didn’t have the opportunity to take those college classes while being in high school,” Somyr, now 18, says. “It was tough. But if you stay focused and don’t get sidetracked – and you know what your end goal is – you can achieve anything.”

Somyr’s experience was made possible through a collaboration between UACCB and the four school districts in Independence County, Arkansas. It allows high school students to concurrently take college credits or career training at the community college. It’s part of a larger effort by community leaders in Independence County and across Arkansas to better prepare students for success after high school, whether they pursue higher education or immediately enter the 21st century marketplace.

Another major goal: To create a better-educated, skilled workforce that attracts high-wage employers to the state.

“For us, everything comes down to having an equipped workforce,” says Jamie Rayford, the chief operating officer for the Batesville Chamber of Commerce, which has led efforts to forge the educational partnerships between Independence County school districts and UACCB.

“Whether a student graduates high school and goes immediately into the workforce, or goes to university, we want them to be equipped and trained and ready,” Jamie says. “We know the only way we can keep our talent here is to attract companies that have great-paying jobs. You can’t attract the companies if you don’t have a trained workforce that is well equipped and ready to go to work.”

To develop the educational partnerships between county school districts and the community college, local officials worked closely with ForwARd Arkansas, a statewide organization formed in 2014 to develop a modern, comprehensive vision for education in the state.

Forward Arkansas is a partnership between the Arkansas Department of Education, the Walton Family Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. After a year-long consultation process – that included focus groups and surveys with 8,500 people – the group developed recommendations for improving student achievement and closing the achievement gap, from pre-school through high school.

Batesville was one of the first five cities – including Crossett, Marianna, Pea Ridge, and Springdale – designated as “Forward Communities” and tasked with developing individualized plans to implement new educational strategies.

In Independence County, qualifying students – those with high grade point averages and test scores – are eligible to take community college courses beginning in 11th grade.

They can take general college credit classes or career-specific courses in fields that include welding, industrial technology, plumbing, nursing, plumbing, cosmetology, and others. In the last academic year, more than 180 Independence County high school students took college courses.

“The fact is, we need a robust high school program that is ready for the global economy,” says Susan Harriman, Forward Arkansas’ executive director. “Education improvement is the driver for creating a state with strong employment that attracts and retains talent.”

Forward Arkansas helped forge relationships between Independence County’s school districts, build educational capacity and consulted with county leaders on how to implement the region’s plan.

Somyr is one of the early success stories. While growing up, she developed an early interest in a healthcare career because several family members – including her father and uncle – worked in the field.

Entering her senior year, she witnessed a car accident and rushed to the assistance of the injured driver.

Somyr knew she had found her calling – and jumped at the opportunity to earn her EMT certification while still in high school.

Since August, Somyr has been working as a licensed EMT with Vital Link, an Independence County-based emergency medical services company.

This fall, she enrolled again at UACCB and is studying to become a paramedic.

“This program has been my saving grace. I am at least a year ahead in terms of being able to reach my goal, just because I had the chance to go to community college as I was finishing high school,” Somyr says. “I am able to do exactly what I love. When I wake up in the morning and I am getting ready for work, I cannot wait to get out that door. To me, that is such a special thing.”

The Arkansas Coalition for Community Schools and ForwARd Arkansas have joined together in partnership to support the development, and implementation of Community Schools in Arkansas.

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