By Mary Jordan
Springdale Public Schools
Springdale Public Schools is a forerunner in developing students for success within Northwest Arkansas’ creative industries.
“Springdale Public Schools offers a pretty good model for the rest of our state,” said Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee, adding the district is preparing students to be successful in a range of growing professions within Arkansas that include welding, agriculture, journalism and the arts.
Arkansas’ nonprofit arts and culture industries generated about $104.4 million in event-related spending by its audiences in 2022, according to the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange website.
Some $202.1 million in spending by Arkansas nonprofit arts and culture organizations and $104.4 million in event-related spending by their audiences likewise supported about 4,800 jobs and generated $49,377,951 in local, state and federal government revenue in 2022, according to CACHE.
(Read the full story on the scope of the creative economy nationally and within Northwest Arkansas here.)
A shift in what contributes to student success following high school has led to a greater emphasis on the creative industries, said Cassie Haley, Fayetteville Film Fest executive director.
The Fayetteville Film Fest celebrated its 15th anniversary Oct. 12-14, according to the nonprofit’s website. The festival aims to promote independent filmmaking, nurture diverse voices and foster a vibrant creative film community in Northwest Arkansas.
“I grew up in Northwest Arkansas, and so I've seen all the growth and expansion,” Haley said. “I've just watched a shift where it was okay to be creative, as long as you are going to go into a professional role of like, say, marketing or advertising. But to be creative for the sake of being creative was not always celebrated.”
Education once fell prey to the “starving artist” mentality, encouraging students away from creative fields, she said.
However, simply teaching students how to read and write isn’t enough to prepare them for the world, said Tiffany Hamilton, Har-Ber High School television and film teacher.
“I teach skills for potential jobs in media, but I also teach the importance of timeliness, communication, professionalism and hard work,” Hamilton said. “We talk about interviewing for jobs and showing initiative in the workplace. It is a huge responsibility, but it is necessary that we send students into the workforce that are capable and reliable.”
Attending college is no longer viewed as the only path toward a successful and well-paying career, said Rodney Ellis, Springdale Public Schools workforce training director.
“Those days are gone,” Ellis said, “and we have a unique bubble in Northwest Arkansas that lends itself to just unlimited opportunities for our students.”
The district offers curriculum, credentialing, internships, employment opportunities and real-world exposer in fields such as agriculture, engineering, robotics, computer programming, advertising and graphic design, construction, television production, journalism, culinary arts, welding and more, he said.
District partnerships with Northwest Arkansas Community College, the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Northwest Technical Institute likewise afford students opportunities to graduate with marketable credentials, associate degrees and credit toward college at little or no cost to students, said Kelley Williamson, Springdale Public Schools career and technical education coordinator.
Modern creative technical industries are often misunderstood, she said.
“The technical pathway in the past has maybe been shunned a little bit as dirty or has just gotten a bad reputation, and it's not true,” Williamson said. “It is automated, it is innovative, and it is a clean environment in which creative minds get together to solve problems in ways that we've never thought about in the past.”
District students are given opportunities to explore potential future careers in class, alongside community partners and at annual district-hosted Trade and Industry Education Day events that are accessible to students throughout Northwest Arkansas, she said.
“We are always seeking opportunities for students through business and industry and entrepreneurship, because we need them,” Williamson said. “In this growing economy, we need that creative thinking, we need complex problem solving, and the best way…to do that is to offer them opportunities that give them field experience while they're learning in the classroom.”
School districts are in the business of producing thriving future citizens, said Dana Wright, Har-Ber High School media and computer science teacher.
“This includes preparing students to be able to earn a living wage to support their future families,” she said. “Providing students with the skills, knowledge and connections to be successful in the future is the heart of why schools exist.”
Districts have a responsibility to help students understand the value of what they can contribute to the world, said Dan Robinson, Fayetteville Film Fest technical director.
“I think valuation of yourself, your skills at your experience level, is something that needs to be shared with creative students so that they know what that onramp looks like and they don't undervalue themselves, which happens far too often,” Robinson said.
Creative industries offer competitive wages nationally, according to the May 2022 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Average annual wages noted in the report included $40,770 for veterinary technologists, $50,460 for welders, $50,210 for photographers, $60,210 for chefs and head cooks, $64,500 for graphic designers, $84,890 for media and communicators, $124,940 for software and web developers and programmers, $112,790 for construction managers and $108,050 for artists and related workers.
Similar competitive positions in Northwest Arkansas listed on Indeed, an online employment database, annually pay as much as $41,500 for veterinary technologists, $53,000 for welders, $28,000 for photographers, $60,000 for chefs and head cooks, $47,000 for graphic designers, $80,000 for media and communications, $88,000 for software and web developers and programmers, $120,000 for construction managers and $115,000 for artists and related workers.
It’s clear Springdale Schools is producing students who have the capacity to be capable and competitive members of the workforce, Robinson said.
“We're getting these graduating classes that are full of talented people, and then we have the opportunity to welcome them or to send them somewhere else to get further trained and then come back home to come to a real, well-paying job,” he said.
The district wants to do all it can to help students take advantage of employment opportunities in Northwest Arkansas, Ellis said.
“We are always seeking opportunities for students through business and industry and entrepreneurship, because we need them,” he said. “Our goal is to keep our brightest and best here.”