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Fort Smith schools, from elementary to post-secondary, saw big changes in 2018.

The Fort Smith School District introduced its five-year Vision 2023 plan at the end of 2017.

A group of local leaders and educators prioritized district needs in the areas of academics, equity, facilities and career planning. After school board approval, another group evaluated the different needs that could justify an increase.

The district-wide improvements were combined into a voter-approved millage rate increase last May.

Nearly 62 percent of voters were in favor of the plan, which propelled the millage rate from the lowest in the county at 36.5 mills to the highest at 42.058 mills. This was the first time in more than three decades the district had a millage increase. More than $120 million will go toward the improvement projects.

Some of the projects include, but are not limited to, a new technology center, storm shelters, increased security and new gyms at both high schools.

“We want to thank the Fort Smith and Barling communities for their support of Fort Smith Public Schools and the students we serve,” Brubaker said in a news release after the increase was approved by voters in May 2018. “We also are grateful for the efforts of so many to get the word out about this ballot question. I am committed to ensuring that our processes and projects are characterized by the high degree of transparency that our community expects.”

The Fort Smith Board of Education approved in August the formation of a millage oversight committee to oversee and report on the use of funding. It is required to meet at least once per quarter.

Contracts are being finalized and design work is in progress. The millage advisory board received a timeline update in early 2019, with “dirt work” starting in the spring and summer for some of the projects, which are all scheduled to be finished at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Students and their families aren’t confined to the Fort Smith district, however, and have other educational opportunities.

Those in elementary school and junior high school may attend one of three different Catholic schools in the city. There are two elementary schools — St. Boniface and Immaculate Conception — and Trinity Junior High.

It was announced last fall that in alignment with the public school sector, there may be a grade restructuring in the coming years.

Father John Antony said elementary schools would serve kindergarten through fifth grade. Middle schools would serve sixth through eighth grade. Keeping grades aligned with the Fort Smith School District would be most effective as students transition to high school and match how the state splits grades. 

“I’m a product of Catholic education from fifth grade, high school, university and seminary. I love Catholic school, and I really felt a passion for helping them,” Antony said.

“I think where we are today is really beautiful, because we have the opportunity to redraw the map for Catholic schools in Fort Smith in a way that we (can) provide the best.”

Future School of Fort Smith is another opportunity. It serves 10th through 12th grade students looking for a more fluid education experience. The school is on a block schedule with each class meeting twice a week. Wednesdays are reserved for internships and concurrent classes through the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

The purpose of the school’s set up is to allow students an opportunity to explore different career fields prior to college and provide a professional network for them as they move onto college or a job.

“Our vision is to create a network of future leaders that we can ground in our community here, so they stay put,” said Principal Allison Montiel. “We’ve got a brain drain problem here in Fort Smith. Our best and brightest go off and don’t come home. So what we’re trying to do is get a group of kids who are so engaged in their community that they think about (moving home).”

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is the city’s flagship university. It offers more than 50 bachelor’s and associate degrees, three dozen certificate programs and various clubs and NCAA Division II athletics.

It is currently in the midst of a nationwide search for a new chancellor following the departure of Paul Beran in 2018. A search committee is assisting University of Arkansas System President Donald Bobbitt in the effort.

Bobbitt will present a recommendation to the board of trustees and, if everything falls into place, he said the school hopes to have a new chancellor by this fall.

UAFS also recently received a $10.8 million donation from the late Myles Friedman, who attended the school when it was still a junior college.

Prior to his death, Friedman donated the money for a scholarship endowment that would support students going into the arts or sciences and have high standardized test scores. The school has already provided 20 Myles Friedman scholarships.

When the school held its fall commencement ceremony in 2018, more than 690 students were eligible for graduation, half of which earned their bachelor’s degree. This was about 75 more eligible students than in fall 2017.

Other higher education opportunities in and near Fort Smith include, but are not limited to, UAMS, Vista College, Arkansas Colleges of Health Sciences, Arkansas Tech University, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Carl Albert State College, John Brown University, Northeastern State University and the University of the Ozarks.