Future School: Education Blended with Experience

by Talicia Richardson

Education Blended with Experience

Come August, the doors will open for Fort Smith’s first tuition-free, licensed high school charter school. This new local institution is all about getting young people ready for the years ahead. Students are already enrolling for the 10th grade classes which begins this fall. No doubt, many of our readers have already heard of Future School, but we wanted to take a look at the leadership, concept and importance of this new learning center for the area business community.

Leadership: Who is Trish Flanagan?

In nearly all organizations, and especially in business, the prevailing and permeating attitude, good, bad or apathetic, is established at the very top of that organization. This top-down flow is absolute. There can be no substitute or any other way to establish an organizational attitude than from the very top, and that attitude will flow into every corner of the organization. Often great ideas move from the bottom to the top but an organizational attitude is established at the very top. We all want that attitude at the top to be sincere, forthright, forward-thinking, supportive, determined, honest and positive.

And that is exactly what you get with Trish Flanagan, Fort Smith’s Future School founder. The first thing you’ll notice about her is that she is smart, enthusiastic and passionate about the school – as well as forward thinking with a real understanding of today’s young people, how they think, what they want, and how they are motivated. Who is this Trish Flanagan and how did she come to found Future School?.

First, whether she is speaking to you, a business owner, or a prospective student, she is “Trish.” Trish has spent the last 14 years working in and with communities in both the United States and abroad. She is driven – and accomplished.

She completed concurrent MBA programs from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and Sam Walton School of Business. While still a grad student, she teamed up with three other students to co-found Picasolar, which in 2013 won over $300,000 in the University’s graduate business plan competition

Trish is a champion for education. She has led vocational training for itinerant teens in Limerick, Ireland; served a stint with Teach America teaching high school on the U.S. – Mexico border; and pioneered a K-12 school in the Honduran Bay Islands. In 2013, with local businessman Steve Clark and Clinton School alumni Chad Williamson, Trish co-founded Noble Impact, an education initiative to establish public service and entrepreneurship as a core curriculum within every school.

In 2013, the Arkansas Times recognized Trish as one of the state’s top 25 Arkansan Visionaries. Touted for her “social entrepreneurship” the recognition comes based on Trish’s passion for “… increasing educational options and outcomes for students who aren’t very much engaged in some of the traditional settings.” (Flanagan, Arkansas Times, September 12, 2013)

This brings us to Future School, an initiative brought about through the working together of Fort Smith business leaders, the Fort Smith Public School District and University of Arkansas. And of course, the “troops” are led, once again, by Trish Flanagan who has recruited a remarkable team of business leaders, educators and students to “steer the course” as the school takes root in the community.

Concept: Why Future School?

It is common knowledge that the United States has emerged as a global leader, in large part, through the genius and hard work of its scientists, engineers and innovators. What many may not recognize is that, in recent years, as a nation we have been lagging in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – the very fields that have given us such a “leg-up” in global leadership.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the U. S. ranking in math puts us at 29th and science rankings at 22nd among industrialized nations. Only 16% of high school seniors are proficient in math and have an interest in STEM careers. Meanwhile, 29% of Americans surveyed rate our country’s K-12 STEM education as above average or the best in the world. Clearly, as a nation we realize that we have an unacceptable deficit in knowledge that will allow us to continue as global educational leaders.

Realistically speaking, our methods of educating have not kept pace with the methods students use to learn. To make the situation even more complex, not every student receives the same degree of educational opportunity. Again, the U.S. Department of education reports that Asian and Caucasian students receive a much higher educational opportunity in STEM subjects than blacks, Hispanic, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students. (STEM subjects are identified as: Algebra 1 & 2, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry and physics.)

When high schoolers are questioned about their educational experience they will relate that they often feel the classes “lack relevance,” and there is not a clear application of the subject matter in their personal lives. While traditional education methods work for many of today’s students, there is a growing student populace asking “Why” this or that class. The big question becomes, “Education…what’s in it for me?” The Future School curriculum has been put together to give students a sense of “relevance” as well as “why.”

Future School is based on Big Picture Learning. The curriculum here includes real-world preparation. All students will identify their interests, cultivate skills needed for future employment, and graduate ready to take their place in society.

“We want our students to be able to test drive their careers and to learn about where they are headed,” says Trish. “The key is personalization, and every student develops a specialized plan.”

As the Future School is currently structured, this fall’s classes will be limited to 150 tenth grade students.Students entering 10th grade can register right now for classes beginning in August of this year. The school will add a grade each year, growing to 450 students in the 10-12th grades by 2018. A full time faculty will not only teach, but nurture students through the school’s programs. There will be seven teachers for each 150 students, according to Trish.

“Each teacher has two functions,” she said. “First will be to teach their passion. Second, each teacher will be a close advisor to 20 students.”

Classrooms at the Future School will be project-based. Instruction is hands-on, cross-curricular and “utilizes real-world scenarios to connect with Fort Smith businesses and service organizations.”

“We are looking for additional teachers,” added Flanagan. “Teachers need to be self starters and embody a student-centered approach to learning and teaching.”

Big Picture Learning: What’s In It For Us, the Business Community?

In addition to classroom work, students will take advantage of internships with local businesses and organizations. This will give them first hand, practical knowledge and applications in the area of their interest. Monitoring and guidance by their teacher-advisor will further enhance the learning experience.

“We want students to develop an understanding of their inherent talents and interests and support them in building relationships with mentors in the community–a barber, travel expert or scientific researcher to name a few examples,” said Flanagan

Employers who accept student interns will be able to expose them to opportunities to solve problems in the real world. This will involve the students in the detailed day-to-day operation of a business or organization.

The main thrust of a business or organization might be a certain group of products or services provided to the public. In an internship, students will learn the importance of customer service, accounting, merchandising, future planning, and other concerns of the operating business or organization where they are interning.

A great deal of preparation has gone into developing the concept and setting up the Future School. It is not a concept new elsewhere in the country.

“We visited over 30 of these types of schools during the past year, and before,” Flanagan explained. The successes she saw at other schools led her to believe in the concept and more recently, in the creation of the Future School of Fort Smith.

At the Future School local students now have new opportunities. They can complete their high school education at the Future School while getting exposure to the world into which they are headed–and in their careers of choice.

High School always includes math and science and all the rest. But Future School adds personalized curricula, project-based classrooms, lots of 21st century technology and internships at actual businesses and organizations. From a student’s point of view, it puts the icing on the cake. Upon graduation, students can head directly into careers of their interest or they can go on to college. Either way, students will have a great deal of confidence in their life decisions.

“Bridging students’ interests to their lives ahead is part of our formal agreement with the Board of Education,” Trish added. Although her background includes an MBA she smiles and admits, “And I know how to set tile.”

For more information and to register, visit FSfuture.org.

Talicia Richardson is a native of Fort Smith, and returned to the city after an 18 year stint of residing in many metropolitan areas.  She is enjoying the resurgence of the new Fort Smith, and is active with many community initiatives that drive neighborhood stabilization.  Talicia works as a Development Officer with the Fort Smith Housing Authority.