The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) and Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) announced a joint effort today that will provide customized professional learning to 25 rural school districts and as many as 75 schools across Arkansas. The three-year program, called the Arkansas Rural Educator Network (AREN), is supported through a $4.85 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Cedar Ridge School District has been receiving NIET’s extensive professional development and training for both teachers and administrators over a period of three years.

“As educational leader for the district I believe it is imperative that each one of us continue to learn and to develop our skills so that we can provide the best education opportunity to our students,” said Dr. Sherry McMasters, superintendent of Cedar Ridge School District.

“The professional development and training provided through NIET is very thorough and is directed to meet the specific needs of our district. I am thrilled to be working with NIET to continue growth and improvement at Cedar Ridge.”

“At a time when rural districts need more support and connections to resources, this partnership addresses both,” said NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen. “We are excited about the creation of the Arkansas Rural Educator Network to create a statewide opportunity to meet the unique needs of rural districts, and we look forward to building a strong coalition that supports educator growth and effectiveness and drives greater student success.”

NIET, a national nonprofit that uses evidence-based teaching and learning practices to accelerate educator growth, partnered with AAEA to recruit and select participating school districts. Now, NIET specialists are engaging in a strengths-based needs assessment to develop plans for each individual district and their schools. Members of AREN will partner with NIET to design and implement their plans, choosing from focused areas of support: virtual and remote instruction; teacher leadership; principal leadership; and implementation of high-quality curriculum. AREN members will receive a customized support plan, engage in regular professional learning, training, and coaching for both virtual and in-person school settings, and they will collaborate monthly with fellow district leaders on common challenges and shared learning.

There will be two groups of school districts throughout the course of the grant. The first cohort, which launched this semester, includes 30 schools across 12 districts including Cedar Ridge, Blevins, Cross County, Drew Central, Fountain Lake, Heber Springs, Helena-West Helena, Hoxie, Jessieville, Magazine, Pangburn, and Southside. The second cohort, to be named in late spring, will start in the 2021-22 school year.

The Arkansas Rural Educator Network is supported by NIET specialists who are paired with districts for the next three years. NIET’s support is grounded in developing teachers and principals to be instructional leaders and coaches for their school. NIET has also been a leader in developing resources and tools for supporting virtual instruction, training thousands of educators on virtual and remote teaching strategies over the past several months.

“When Arkansas educators have more opportunities to collaborate and strengthen teaching and learning, kids win,” said Dr. Mike Hernandez, executive director of AAEA. “This initiative will benefit our schools for years to come and create a lasting network of education leaders across the state.”

After the first school year, NIET will build a longer-term plan for each partnering district to ensure sustainability and increase schools’ instructional capacity. Partners will attend regular networking sessions year-round, learning strategies and lessons to replicate in their own districts. As the network progresses, the partnership will point to strategies and approaches that Arkansas leaders could take statewide.

NIET has been working with Arkansas educators for nearly two decades. NIET has partnered with schools, districts, states, and universities across the country to build educator excellence and give all students the opportunity for success. NIET’s initiatives, including the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement, teacher and leader development, school improvement, rubric and observation systems, and educator preparation, have impacted more than 275,000 educators and 2.75 million students across the U.S. The AAEA was incorporated over 40 years ago with the goal of seeking continual improvement in the quality of education and educational leadership in Arkansas. To this end, AAEA has committed itself to supporting school leaders through legislative representation, advocacy, and professional learning opportunities. The AAEA is an umbrella association with 12 constituent educational administrator organizations. All school administrators who are members of the AAEA are also members of at least one of the constituent organizations.

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