Sam Dean believes students thrive when they are challenged academically in school – while also having access to learning opportunities outside of the classroom.
As executive director of the Amazeum, an interactive children’s museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, Sam sees the benefits when communities embrace and support a holistic view of education that goes beyond the bricks and mortar of schools.
Every day, he manages 50,000 square feet of exhibits and learning spaces specifically designed to inspire creativity and discovery in the children who visit.
“If you don't have a strong community that offers other opportunities outside of the academic realm, we're missing the opportunity to be able to grow whole human beings,” said Sam. “Many folks actually get their inspiration from things that happen outside the classroom.”
At the Walton Family Foundation, we are committed to increasing access to high-quality K-12 education for all students in Northwest Arkansas. Our focus on education is a critical component of the foundation’s five-year strategy to ensure the region is one of the most inclusive and vibrant communities in the country.
To prepare every student for a successful and fulfilling life, we need parents, advocates and educators to work together in order to prepare young people to achieve their individual aspirations.
It’s imperative that your school district be a place where everyone belongs.”
What does community engagement on high-quality education look like?
I recently discussed that vision with a group of Northwest Arkansans – including Sam, school leaders, parents and students – who care deeply about the future of education in the region.
The consensus: We need to make sure all students have opportunities inside and outside the classroom that meet their needs to grow as learners.
That collaborative work must include outreach to low-income and business communities, to communities of color and leaders from all walks of life. We need to bring everyone to the table – and listen to their concerns and ideas for community-driven solutions.
“It’s imperative that your school district be a place where everyone belongs,” said Dr. Debbie Jones, superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools.
Bentonville Public Schools, she said, works deliberately to create opportunities for kids that engage them, forging close partnerships with community leaders to help students gain learning experiences.
She cited Bentonville Public Schools’ Ignite Professional Studies program as an example of how schools are working with the community to develop programs that meet student needs, whether they are college or career-bound after graduation.
“It starts with the basic belief that no one should cross our stage and leave without being prepared to follow their dreams. If that dream is college, then you're prepared to go. If that dream is to walk into a career immediately, you should be prepared to do that.”
The Ignite program, supported by the Walton Family Foundation, provides high school juniors and seniors with relevant, real-world opportunities to learn what it means to work in a chosen field, helping them to decide on a future career path. Ignite partners with local businesses to place students in apprenticeships in fields that include construction, technology, filmmaking and medicine.
“The reason (Ignite) is critically successful is because we have a community of businesses that are willing to take our kids in and let them apprentice and give them real projects,” said Debbie.
At the foundation, we strongly believe that those closest to the problem have the best solutions. In education, it is critical for the voices and stories of parents, teachers, students and other community members to be front and center in building a shared vision for high-quality education.
Parents and families can get involved in local school committees, volunteer on boards of organizations that serve students, ask questions of school leadership, or even start organizations that fill an educational need. Businesses, meanwhile, can look for opportunities to invite school communities to learn about their operations, become mentors to students, offer internships and open their organization as a place for kids to learn.
Sam says out-of-school learning experiences, like after-school programs and educational workshops, offer students important opportunities to discover new passions and interests.
They also provide a chance for the whole community to get behind these efforts. “If you look at something that might be outside an academic track and you get really excited about it … your community, your business community, your informal learning community, camps and workshops, and your entire civic infrastructure” add value to the education students receive in schools,” Sam said.
Jamie Deigh, a Bentonville public schools teacher and mother of two school-aged children, agreed.
“It does take a community that has wonderful museums like (the Amazeum), as well as The Momentary and Crystal Bridges. They are pouring into the community. And then you've got education pouring into the community,” said Jamie.
The bottom line: Students must have access to a great school system and other learning opportunities that give them a well-rounded perspective on life and help them reach their full potential and fulfill their aspirations.
“We know it's so critically important to have a strong school system, (and) Northwest Arkansas has the best collection of schools from public to private to independent,” added Sam.
By working deliberately to create an environment where learning is continuous from the classroom to the community, and available to all, he said, Northwest Arkansas is building a truly vibrant community where “you can feel this energy, this palpable sense that things are happening, in school and out of school.”