Representatives of the U.S. State Department met with more than two dozen teachers and nonprofit leaders inside the Ron Robinson Theater today to share work and celebrate the close of the first-in-the-nation Declaration of Learning pilot program in schools throughout Arkansas.
It was, in some ways, the culmination of an agenda set forth by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the waning days of her tenure.
The Arkansas Declaration of Learning program enlisted 26 teachers from around the state, most located in or near the population centers of Little Rock or Northwest Arkansas, but some small-town teachers as well such as Nicole Bledsoe at Mena High, Nancy Spencer of Buffalo Island Central Junior High in Leachville, and Susan Youngblood of Manila High.
“There’s not diversity at Manila, and so exposing them to some of the art pieces and talking about the Japanese internment, talking about segregation, talking about Central High School … was eye-opening for them, and it was awesome to see their response,” she said.
According to the last census, less than four percent of Manila’s 3,342 residents claim to be a race other than white.
Anne Menotti is a senior advisor for education and outreach in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms office where Marcee Craighill is director, and she says Declaration of Learning began when the two noticed a shift in energy when touring students gathered around the Treaty of Paris desk.
“The Treaty of Paris desk is one of our most iconic objects, and it sits in the John Quincy Adams Diplomatic Reception Rooms… and when the students would come to that desk, all of a sudden, they would stop talking, and stop texting, and they would just stand there. And it was just this moment, and Marcee and I looked at each other and said, ‘How can we capture that moment?’ … Because not everyone can come to the diplomatic rooms. We have thousands of diplomatic meetings … in those 42 rooms every day.”
In January, 2013, Clinton sat at the Treaty of Paris desk and signed off on a pledge “to bring the collective resources of our institutions together to create” education for American students. The plan included several national institutions including the American Library Association and the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and State Department, the National Park Service and National Endowment for the Arts and others. Some of these, like the State Department and the Smithsonian, steward priceless historical artifacts and original materials, but not all.
In Arkansas, one of the partners is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Youngblood said her Manila High School students can’t visit the State Department’s Diplomatic Rooms. They didn’t even bus to Crystal Bridges. The learning is online, facilitated by experts, concurrent with classroom instruction and curriculum from each teacher.
One teacher, Melanie Nations, an eighth-grade Prairie Grove Middle School teacher, recreated the 1787 Constitutional Convention with her students.
Other teachers led computer-assisted graphic art projects or even performance art pieces.
The pilot program received large contributions from First Quality Enterprises and the Arkansas Community Foundation’s Bridge Fund grant.
Monday morning, before a teachers’-lounge-appropriate box lunch of sandwiches with a cookie and cold water for refreshment followed by a reception at the Clinton Presidential Center, more than two dozen educators stood to receive “diplomas” from the pilot program. Several, including Nations, gave presentations on their projects.
Jenna Brush, an English teacher at Jacksonville Lighthouse Charter School College Prep Academy, said she simply couldn’t have offered her students the kind of expert instruction made available by aid from, in her particular case, Niki Ciccotelli Stewart and Zev Slurzberg at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville.
A key component of the curriculum is civic engagement and understanding, a fact that Brush says is highlighted by the events of the last few days.
“I experienced several cases of students in tears, very upset, not understanding what was going to happen. We do have several students who are here in our country illegally. We did have two cases. One student who made the comment, ‘Well, you won’t be here by the time semester exams roll around, so why do you care?’ We also had two students who were really close friends and actively involved in understanding politics and current events, who were on opposite ends. We had to basically fix their friendship.”
The Arkansas Declaration of Learning pilot continues this school year, then is ready to be exported, Menotti says. The state of Nevada has already signed on to be the second-in-the-nation Declaration of Learning state in 2017.