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New Lonoke School’s Goal? Keeping Talent on the FarmLock Icon

4 min read
Lonoke Academy Keeping Talent on Farm 137250
Elizabeth Anderson of Anderson Fish Farms is a major backer of the new 30,000-SF Agriculture Business Academy in Lonoke. ( Karen E. Segrave)

The Lonoke Business Academy-Carver Campus, which will see its first students in a few weeks, aims to retain agricultural talent in the rural community and neighboring areas by offering hands-on career learning opportunities to teenagers.

The 30,000-SF academy is on Highway 70 in Lonoke, the 4,200-population seat of Lonoke County.

It will house programs in diesel technology, industrial technology, aqua agriculture (fish farming), traditional farming and animal science, taught in part by local farmers and ranchers. Students will have access to virtual reality equipment, drones, modern diesel engines and more, officials said.

In the attached 11,000-SF Community Health Clinic, students will learn about medical health services, thanks to a partnership between the Lonoke School District and Baptist Health. The clinic will treat community members as well as students and is intended to improve access to health care, which is often lacking in rural communities.

The 75 students enrolled in the new programs have yet to enter the nearly completed building, though the clinic has been open. A ribbon-cutting is set for Oct. 25.

All the students are from Lonoke for now, but school district officials say Carlisle, Hazen, England and Cabot have expressed interest in enrolling their students soon.

The district funded the academy and clinic through a voter-approved 1.9 millage increase last year that generated $12 million. School board member Elizabeth Anderson co-chaired the millage campaign.

She is also co-chairing an ongoing fundraising campaign that will continue to support programs at the “state-of-the-art facility” and has already raised about $300,000.

Lonoke Academy Keeping Talent on Farm 137250
The facility will house hands-on education in agriculture, aquaculture, diesel mechanics and other aspects of farming life for high school students and continuing education opportunities after high school. ( Karen E. Segrave)

Seeking to Prevent Debt

Anderson said the project was needed in part because many Lonoke students do not pursue a traditional four-year college degree, and many of those who do end up dropping out, saddled with student debt. The academy seeks to prevent that.

“This is providing an opportunity for those kids to learn some hands-on training that they can take with them and earn some really good money right after [graduation],” she said. “I mean, a diesel mechanic can make up to $80,000 a year.”

Lonoke Superintendent Jeff Senn told Arkansas Business that 3 out of every 10 Lonoke High School graduates do not attend a four-year university immediately, though many go to a two-year community college.

Even those who pursue a postsecondary education right away often haven’t settled on a career yet, a decision the academy could help them make, he said.

The academy is a good fit for the community and its neighbors because of its focus on agriculture, which is the state’s largest industry and big business for Lonoke County, Senn and Anderson said.

“A lot of companies are shorthanded,” Senn said. “So we’re hoping that we can transition our students directly from high school into the workforce, if that’s what they choose to do, of course.”

By focusing on agriculture, the academy could help Lonoke retain talent, which leads to economic stability, Anderson said.

But the academy and clinic will also serve the college-bound. Students will be able to earn college credit, at a reduced rate, from partner Arkansas State University-Beebe through three programs: diesel technology, industrial maintenance and medical professions.

The students can also earn certificates or work toward an associate of applied science in general technology, according to ASU-Beebe Chancellor Jennifer Methvin.

She said the two-year college is pleased to be a partner because there is high demand from the agriculture and health care industries for skills that will be taught at the academy and clinic.

Several companies have partnered with the academy as well. In fact, the district obtained a waiver that allows local employers to help teach students there.

Senn said employers, in turn, could offer internships to students they help teach or hire the students after they graduate.

“The main instructors of our college-level courses have to have the credentials for the accreditation, but the academy is working really hard to work with employer partners, and we do that in all of our career technical education programs, so that they come in as guest lecturers or students visit farms and things,” Methvin said. “So [students] can see what they will actually be doing, in real world work. And that’s important for young people. You cannot be what you cannot see.”

Anderson said staff members at the Carlisle location of Heritage Agriculture of Arkansas and her husband, Jamie, are among several professionals who will lead students in hands-on activities. The Anderson family operates I.F. Anderson Farms Inc. of Lonoke, which raises minnows and goldfish.

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