A visit to Mena

Posted by Michael Simkins on January 22, 2018

Mena Station today
Mena Station today

The first train arrived in Mena, Arkansas in August 1896 with the goal of connecting Kansas City, Missouri to Port Arthur, Texas. I arrived in January 2018 with the goal of visiting the Mena Public Schools and, in particular, seeing how students and teachers were using technology.

Mena is a rural town of 5,700 people in the southwest of Arkansas, quite near the Oklahoma border. Originally a railroad town, the economy is now diverse   Health care and social assistance, retail trade, construction, educational services, and manufacturing are the top five occupational groups, in that order, and account for 72% of jobs. The median household income is $27,491.

Mena Schools Bearcat logoMena public schools enroll 1,750 students in grades K-12. The average class size is 15 and the district spends $9,200 per pupil. 92% of students are white, 68% are low income, and just 1% are limited English proficient.

My guide for the morning was TICAL cadre member Clifton Sherrer. I could not have been in better, more knowledgeable hands. Raised in Mena, Clifton attended all the schools we would visit and, after leaving for college, returned to coach and teach science for 15 years. Following that he was assistant principal at Mena Middle School a number of years before moving into the principal’s office two years ago. Clifton knows Mena.

My tour began at Louise Durham Elementary, a building currently undergoing major renovation. As we walked down one hall, we were passed by a class of kindergarten students, following the “red line” in single file fashion, each holding an index card with his or her username and password. No doubt on the way to the computer lab, we concluded, and I decided I’d like to see what they’d be up to when they got there.

The goal was for the students to play some games that teach early literacy skills, but first they had to get logged into their individual accounts. That was quite a process. At least four adults were going from student to student, helping with the chore, trying to get everyone to the same place so instructions could begin. Due to my tight schedule, we had to leave before that was accomplished. My hunch is this process was new to the kids and with a little practice, logging in will happen quickly.

Holly Harshman, a grades three to five school, was the next stop. Recently, every classroom got a set of Chromebooks, and the school also has Google Classroom. I spent most of my time talking with two teachers during their planning period.  Hollie, a fifth grade teacher, was clearly excited, if yet a bit nervous, about finally having the technology available to support the projects her class would be doing. Jill—an “early adopter” I suspect—was giving Hollie pointers and reassurance. It was a pleasure to see their enthusiasm.

Next on the itinerary was Mena High. Opened in 2011, it’s a striking building with great features that include open spaces, a huge library, playing fields, and a beautiful auditorium and performance space.

As we walked down one of the wide, bright halls, my attention was caught by the furniture in one classroom, so we ducked in to take a closer look. Instead of the typical “chair desk,” this room had a mix of flexible, movable furniture. I learned from the teacher that is was very new and she was experimenting with it.  So far, she likes it, despite the fact some of it arrived mismatched—stools intended for higher tables. In true educator-innovator fashion, she solved that problem with bed risers!

Alternative education is one program at the school that makes extensive use of technology. This program used to be housed elsewhere but when the new school was designed, the decision was made to dedicate space for it in the main building. Use of tutorial and other online educational resources make it possible to tailor both content and schedule to the individual needs of these students. However, my favorite part of this stop on the tour was meeting—and petting—Ellie, the therapy dog.

Photo of Ellie the therapy dog
Ellie, the therapy dog

I intentionally asked to save Clifton’s own school, Mena Middle, for last. Walking down the main hall, we passed a display of student art with a banner proclaiming, “MMS can Be the Good.” I asked Clifton about it. “It’s something started by one of our 6th grade teachers where students make positive comments about their peers each month and nominate them for being good. I asked her to put this display up before we presented the project to the school board.”

As for technology, the middle school now has a set of Chromebooks in each core classroom, which enables a 1-to-1 setting for those key subjects. The school chose this approach rather than issuing the devices to individual students for several reasons. It keeps the Chromebooks secure, onsite, and ready to use. Students store their work in the cloud, so they can access their files regardless of which Chromebook they are using, plus many students do not have Internet access at home. Also, having the Chromebooks available in each classroom frees the school’s computer labs for other uses.

Our visit to the cafeteria was an eye-opener for me. In 2016-17, the district outsourced food services.  The result is far more choice for students. There are different entree choices each day.  There’s a salad bar. There’s always pizza! No more lunch counts or teachers collecting lunch money to keep it safe till lunchtime. Technology is enabling personalization in the cafeteria, not just the classroom.

Besides the things I’ve described specific to each school I visited, I came away with some general observations and impressions as well.

  • Everywhere, I saw happy, well-behaved kids and friendly, dedicated adults.
  • From sayings on the wall to pictures of students in the hallways, the feeling tone in every school was uniformly positive.
  • Technology was being implemented thoughtfully, with attention to both its potential and practicality—no rush to adopt any technology for technology’s sake.

My half-day visit afforded only a glimpse, of course, but it was time well spent!

Quotation on the wall at Mena Middle School: "Every child is a story yet to be told."
On the wall at Mena Middle School. The picture says it all!
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Michael Simkins

Michael Simkins is Consulting Director of TICAL — the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. Prior to that he was director of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project and also served as COO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He was an elementary schoolteacher for 17 years and an elementary principal for 9 years. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, when it was still a “sleepy beach town.”

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