man sitting at a desk in a large rural, field

In 2010, Jon Laffoon took over as principal of Pea Ridge High School in Pea Ridge, AR. It turned out to be a very fortuitous happening.

As the only high school in a rural community of about 5,000 people, the school served about 600 ninth through 12th graders. When Laffoon assumed the principalship, he faced similar struggles to what I experienced when I took over my own struggling rural school just a year later. I had heard from a Twitter friend about some of the goings on at Pea Ridge High. I knew I had to see it for myself and paid the school a visit. As I interviewed Laffoon and saw this transformation firsthand, I could clearly relate to what he went through—and marvel at his remarkable achievements.

Among the challenges both Laffoon and I faced was a lack of collaboration among high school staff; a lack of professional learning communities whose goal was to see all students achieve; and a clear-cut gap in current technology. 

Laffoon, a former baseball coach, had a great way of characterizing the struggle with technology when he arrived at Pea Ridge: “It was a fight at the bat rack” for time at the computer lab—literally. Teachers were constantly in line trying to access the one computer lab in a building occupied by 600 students.

Addressing an Alarming Statistic

Laffoon immediately began addressing this technology issue by stopping the purchase of all textbooks and investing this savings into purchasing new technology. Remember, this was 2010 in rural Arkansas, and, as you might expect, teachers were a little skeptical to say the least, especially when their textbook adoptions came up. 

Laffoon also formed a leadership team comprised of teachers and staff that helped him navigate the changes that would need to be made to take Pea Ridge High School to the next level. Bear in mind, Pea Ridge was not failing—students were ranked average to above average on state-mandated assessments. In fact, they were one of the highest performing schools on AP exams in Arkansas.

However, after digging into data, Laffoon and his team found an alarming statistic. Only 60 percent of graduates from Pea Ridge High School between 2008–2011 went on to postsecondary institutions. But that wasn’t the most alarming statistic. The most upsetting thing was that only 30 percent of those attending colleges or universities stayed beyond their freshman year. That was a problem.

Laffoon’s superintendent, Rick Neal, was concerned about those drop-outs as well as the 40 percent of students who didn’t elect to attend a post­secondary institution at all. His vision was to involve the business community. He wanted the students in his district, upon graduation from high school, to have a lifelong trade, especially if they did not attend a postsecondary educational institution. And what he was really, ultimately, concerned about was placement in jobs that didn’t just pay minimum wage, but that would pay, in some cases, at least $30 an hour.

Thanks to this vision and a huge amount of work done not only by Pea Ridge High School, but also the Northwest Arkansas Business Council, the Pea Ridge Manufacturing and Business Academy (PRMBA) was born.

Applying for a Charter 

The school applied for a charter with the Arkansas State Department of Education, and now they operate the program as a charter school within Pea Ridge High School. The academy has 11 business partners (see image at top of the page for a complete list), including national chains Walmart, Mercy Health Systems, and Embassy Suites Hotels. Students do their academic work in the “iSchool” facility, which provides a blended online learning curriculum (with in-house certified teachers for them when needed), then select a pathway of learning from those provided by the business partners as the “most employable.” These include: health care (students get a Certified Nursing Assistant license before completion), plastic and metal fabrication, marketing and supply chain, industrial technology, and multimedia production. Instructors in the PRMBA are professionals in their fields, not certified teachers (this was part of the charter granted by the Arkansas Department of Education). The facility opened in 2014–15 and has been a tremendous success—in just the first year and a half, student enrollment at Pea Ridge High School has increased by 100 kids. Students are able to get something in this small rural community that no one else is offering. 

Purchasing Chromebooks 

Laffoon didn’t stop there. Although the PRMBA was a huge accomplishment, he and his staff were also busy integrating technology into their classrooms. Laffoon was able to purchase 150 Chromebooks in the 2013–14 school year, and more the following year. The school rolled out 1:1 Chromebooks to start the 2015–16 school year for all high school students. (This was possible through the aforementioned textbook money savings.)

Along with this added technology came a lot of added responsibility for him as a principal to provide teachers with training and ensure a change in their pedagogy. Students were also challenged with added responsibilities as digital learners to use the devices responsibly and be more accountable for their own learning. Along with the 1:1 Chromebook roll-out came a new schedule. Much planning, student, parent, and community input went into this, and the result was a “Flex-Mod” schedule. To put it in the simplest terms, students attend school every day which consists of class periods—some in traditional 50-minute periods, some 75 minutes—and then an Independent Learning Time (ILT) block of 25 minutes a day where kids are responsible for their own learning. During this time, they can go to teachers assigned to designated areas for individualized help. A sophomore student told me, “The Flex-Mod schedule makes us do our work during that time instead of just being on social media or talking to friends; it’s preparing us for when we go to college.” What happens, you ask, when students have poor grades or have missed school and are behind? Their ILT period becomes Scheduled Learning Time (SLT) and they are assigned to a given room with a teacher. 

As a teacher myself, I was able to get feedback from many teachers during my visit to Pea Ridge—they love this schedule. They actually teach fewer class periods and have more ILT scheduled to work individually with students or work on preparation for the next week’s lessons. It reminded me of a college professor’s schedule with office hours. 

This new “Flex-Mod” schedule has enabled Laffoon to do something especially exciting—the need for substitute teachers has been eliminated at Pea Ridge High School. If a teacher is absent, students report to ILT and do work from Google Classroom, which all teachers voluntarily adopted a year early! This represents a savings to the district of more than $35,000 per year. 

With all of these positive changes, Laffoon and his staff have made “rural” synonymous with “innovation.”  

Daisy Dyer Duerr is former principal of St. Paul High School in St. Paul, AR, an NASSP Digital Principal, and will be a speaker at the Ignite ’16 conference.