By Melanie Landrum, executive director

Peabody Hall houses the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkansas.

Peabody Hall houses the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Arkansas.

​Paul Leopoulos, the Executive Director of the Thea Foundation resurrected Arkansas A+ Schools from obscurity after visiting Hugh Goodwin Elementary in El Dorado, Arkansas. He could clearly see as he visited, “There is something very different about this school. Teachers were more student centered, student work was everywhere and evidence of student voice and choice was pervasive.”

When I first came on board as Executive Director of ARA+ Schools from my position as Principal of an A+ school, Paul told me that one of my (many) jobs was to find ARA+ a “university home.” He knew that ARA+, like its sisters A+ states of North Carolina, Oklahoma and Louisiana, would quickly outgrow the Thea Foundation’s ability to provide support. He was right.

“There is something very different about this school.”

Over the next four years, I convened with professors and deans from every major college and university in Arkansas two times a year in what was called the ARA+ University Consortium. We discussed what A+ was and was not and the importance of each of the eight elements that we incorporate into our school training. Colleges and universities agreed and discussed how they could incorporate these elements into their own curriculum and send interns to A+ schools. We also talked about our need for a home in a college or university. Several expressed interest but it was the University of Arkansas that found the resources and partnerships to make this home-coming a reality.​

Across the state of Arkansas, 24 schools have been transformed since 2011. A+ will select five schools each year that will go through a three year training process to designate as ARA+ schools and continue as a network partner beyond year three. In order to be considered for designation, the school must have 85% of their staff vote in support of the model. This requires the staff to learn about the model, visit current A+ schools and be committed to implementation with fidelity. It is only with this commitment and openness to embrace the A+ philosophy that schools will become places where people, like Paul Leopoulos, will say, “There is something very different about this school.”

We are so grateful for the support of Dean Michael Miller of the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions, John Brown of the Windgate Foundation and Paul Leopoulos of the Thea Foundation for making this merger possible. Dean Miller welcomed ARA+ as the university’s outreach into schools, and Commissioner Johnny Key has endorsed our work in his newly approved ESSA plan. We have met with Asst. Commissioner Jeremy Owoh and Director of Educator Effectiveness to obtain funding for schools who wish to designate as ARA+ Schools and have seven schools who are exploring their possibilities.