The break for the Christmas and New Year holidays gives over to a frenzied pace in January. That’s when Conference planning moves from a theoretical, measured pace to an all-out rush to the finish. As the countdown nears zero, it seems like the days get longer and shorter all at the same time. Melanie Ridlon, Director of Training & Events, swears that one day she will forbid the skies to snow between January and the last day of EAST Conference. The inevitable winter closings always add tension to the run-up to Conference.
Did I mention Conference preparation? Did I mention the Hundred Year Snowfall? What a crazy month!
We were very proud of the presentations at February’s TICAL (Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership) Conference by schools who had participated in the EETT (Enhancing Education Through Technology) Video grant over the past year. This innovative partnership among the EAST Initiative, lucky EAST program grant recipients, Southeast Educational Services Cooperative and the greatest video trainer at SAU-Tech, Steve Taylor, put more video production capacity into Arkansas communities than anyone realizes.
TICAL was inspiring, but for us it was a warm-up for the main event, which we prepared for by staging workshops (between snow storms) for our student Conference Leadership Teams: the Documentation team (photo, video, virtual reality), the Tech team and the Ambassadors.
Are there enough words to describe the spectacle and the excitement that is the Annual EAST Conference? For the eleventh time, representatives from all over the EAST world gathered together to share, celebrate and learn from each other. This year was our largest event ever: the most schools, the most participants, and the most fun.
- The Trout Fishing in America concert that turned into a full-scale EASTriot and the largest conga line I’ve ever seen or participated in.
- Dr. Tom Kimbrell, Commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, exhorting us to continue to lead, calling EAST the future of education and pointing out that the future is now.
- Mason and the Russellville kids serenading me in the hotel lobby with a song about me.
- The Cave City students making our guest USO representative cry with pride and admiration.
- Scott Jochim demonstrating his VR tools to the mother and father of my favorite freshman legislator.
- Sharing a brief, quiet moment with our Conference director standing in the bleachers as the third day was underway. From our vantage point we could see all of the conference, far enough away that it seemed quiet. All was well, and though we were exhausted, we shared in the satisfaction of a charge well kept.
At the Conference, we were pleased to release a new study on the value of EAST. Our friends at the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Central Arkansas spent a year looking at the economic impact of EAST projects in the state of Arkansas, and what they found was amazing! EAST projects in Arkansas alone have an annual $15 MILLION dollar impact in local communities. EAST facilitators add an average of $85,000 in value to their school and community beyond the educational impact. The value of the students, as we all know, cannot be adequately measured. They are truly priceless.
Conference was capped off with the presentation of awards: 70 schools received Superior Rating in the Program Impact Assessment judging; Conwell-Egan Catholic High School (Fairless, PA), Greenbrier High School and Nettleton High School were named EAST schools of Excellence; and Dardanelle High School was named the winner of the 2011 Founder’s Award. Elite status for elite programs; these groups are the best of education!
We went straight from Conference to the recruiting trail. With the energy of Conference still in our tanks we hit the road to visit schools wanting to start EAST programs. This year over 50 schools came to our Vision Building workshops. The first school to commit to a new EAST program for the 2011-2012 school year was the Kiamichi Technology Center in Talihina, Oklahoma. For Arkansas schools pursuing the ADE EAST grant, however, it was a longer process, with much interest and competition for funding.
Every school submitting a formal EAST grant application gets a personal on-site visit from the Arkansas Department of Education. I have the honor of participating in these site tours, and in a very short time, the ADE representative and I get to see most of the state. One day alone we traveled nearly 400 miles and visited schools in a very strange triangulation.
Surprisingly, I received another humbling honor this April. How I got inducted into the Arkansas Academy of Computing, I’m not sure I understand. Considering my late arrival into the world of computing, I am lucky to be among the honorees. One member of my induction class has been programming since the end of the Second World War; another has worked with NASA; then there is my very dear friend Allison Nicholas of Axciom, who has done more to launch technology careers than I could tell you. However it happened, I’m grateful for the recognition and honored to be among this group of technology leaders in Arkansas.
With the site tours done, it was time to make the long walk to the Arkansas Department of Education to work toward securing grants for the new schools…
After all was said and done, we ended up with a smaller class of new EAST schools than in past years. I believe this points up today’s significant fiscal challenges in education. There were far more schools ready to implement EAST programs than there was money to fund them, but the EAST class of 2011-2012 was finally announced in mid-May. It’s a dandy:
- Bald Knob Middle School
- Batesville High School
- Cutter Morning Star High School (Hot Springs)
- Dover High School
- Gardner Math, Science, Technology School (Hot Springs)
- Randall G. Lynch Middle School (Farmington)
- Sonora Elementary (Springdale)
- West Fork High School
- Kiamichi Technology Center (Talihina, OK)
As May winds down, we cheer another class of graduates and encourage them to stay a part of EAST through our Alumni organization and to use their EAST experience to turbocharge their college and career life. But mostly we challenge them to be brave, bold and mighty; to change their piece of the world for the better and in doing so to change the entire world.
In the charming synchronicity that comprises education, EAST finishes the old year preparing for the new one. New facilitators need to be trained, a summer seminar is just around the corner and Conference 2012 is just 287 days from June 1!
We finish the year with the knowledge that over 20,000 students performed an estimated 4,000 projects and logged roughly 1.5 MILLION service hours this past year, gaining technology and teamwork skills in the process. EAST students got up on their hind legs like bears in 2010 and 2011 — and we are all better for it!
June marks a personal milestone for me. June 1, 2001 was my first day as a full-time employee of a little organization in the process of becoming the EAST Initiative. I had been introduced to the EAST model four years earlier and had been facilitating EAST classes for the three prior to June 2001. Before EAST, I could not imagine NOT being in the classroom.
But EAST taught me to be open to change and never stop pushing the boundaries. EAST convinced me that what we were doing in the schools was not enough…it was good, but we could do better. I left the safety and security of my classroom for the wild life of a start-up nonprofit — because I was taught that when you find a passion and a purpose, you chase it with all you’ve got.
I’m thankful that I found my place in this big old world and thankful for all the wonderful people I’ve met here. When EAST first started to grow, an “expert” with years of federal experience told me that what we were doing in a handful of rural Arkansas schools could not be replicated. He said that the “initiative” side of this thing was doomed to mediocrity or failure within five years. Well, look at us now. Still here, still achieving. And I am truly blessed to still be a part of it.
We look forward to the new year. Great things are in store for 2012-2013. The greatest of all is that when the bell rings, our students will answer the call.