The best place to raise a child in Arkansas, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is Springdale, a bustling community with a strong agrarian heritage in the northwest corner of the state. The headquarters of massive corporations such as Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt Transport are based in or near town, fueling a recent economic boom that has brought the region new schools, recreational facilities and housing. Last year, the Springdale School District became the second largest in Arkansas, with more than 18,000 students—double its size in 1995.
The ironic challenge for school district administrators is that prosperity has brought poverty to Springdale. Many low-wage jobs created by local industries have been filled by workers from Spanish speaking locales and from the Marshall Islands, in Micronesia. Migrant parents struggling with English are having a tough time meeting the health needs of their children, who now make up roughly half the school population.
"A child who is hungry, a child whose teeth are killing him, a child who has been out in the rain getting to school—what kind of a day is that child going to have?" asks veteran Springdale Schools board member Jim Bradford. "How is he going to learn? We've got a very impoverished district, with over 60 percent receiving free or reduced lunch. You have opportunity for improvement from a lot of angles here. Health is certainly a major piece."
The Picture of Health
Last year, Arkansas gave Springdale its Healthy School Board Diamond Award for wide-ranging policies and educational programs that promote the health of students, their families, and school staff. In addition to offering proper nutrition and expansive opportunities for exercise during the school day, Springdale has been enthusiastically interpreting all aspects of the "coordinated school health model" originally defined by the Centers for Disease Control. This eight-point model being piloted in several states includes access to social and health services (such as a mobile dental lab sponsored in Springdale by McDonald's), mental health counseling (offered in partnership with Springdale's Ozark Guidance Center), and increased outreach to local families.
"We know that if kids are actively engaged in learning, and if parents are behind them in that process, we're going to produce a much-better-prepared graduate," says Jim Rollins, superintendent of Springdale Schools for the past 28 years and a two-time State Superintendent of the Year.
One major business partner has been the Toyota Corporation, which awarded Springdale a $600,000 three-year grant to pilot its long-established family literacy program in three Springdale elementary schools. "We bring Hispanic moms and dads into our schools four days a week for three to four hours," Rollins explains. "They work on their literacy skills, mathematical skills, social skills for the first hour and a half. Then they go to their child's classroom and participate in the same lessons. As those parents develop their own skills, they're better able to help with their child's studies. They become strong advocates for the school. They're in a much better position to contribute to the community. So it's been a win-win."
The first year of the grant was so successful that five additional Springdale schools were inspired to go out and find their own funding. On literacy graduation day in May, Rollins honored some 225 Hispanic parents who had spent a year attending many of the same classes as their elementary school children.
"It's a whole-child initiative, without question," Rollins says. "You're engaging the family. You're in partnership with the school. It's a beautiful thing."
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer based in northern California.