Smith named Arkansas’s ACT College and Career Readiness Champion

Amber Smith, assistant vice chancellor of student experiences and director of the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy, has been named a 2019 ACT College and Career Readiness Champion for the postsecondary professional category.

Amber Smith, assistant vice chancellor of student experiences and director of the Charles W. Donaldson Scholars Academy, has been named a 2019 ACT College and Career Readiness Champion for the postsecondary professional category. 

ACT is recognizing professionals for their work to advance college and career readiness for all. Champions are high school seniors, K-12 professionals, postsecondary professionals, and workforce professionals who are making a positive impact on their communities through their efforts to advance college and career readiness. The ACT College and Career Readiness Champions are individuals across the country who support ACT’s mission of education and workplace success.

“I was honored and surprised. When you are doing work for students, you do it because it needs to be done,” Smith said. “My goal was to create an innovative experience for students to learn how to be successful on the ACT. What I found is that a lot of the preparation programs out there did not appeal to the students I focus on. I work with a lot of underserved and underrepresented populations. I was looking for a culturally relevant pedagogy to enhance student performance on standardized tests. When we couldn’t find it, we created our own, ACT Prep Express.”

The Donaldson Scholars Academy helps students who are at risk due to socioeconomic disadvantages or other factors improve their academic achievement and prepare for college. The programs include ACT Prep Express, which helps high school students in Pulaski County Special School District, Little Rock School District, and the North Little Rock School District prepare for high school graduation, the ACT, and college.

“We created an experience that goes to high schools driven by music and games,” Smith said. “We are dealing with high school students, and we want them to have fun. We start the morning with a parent breakfast, and we have recruiters from UA Little Rock, UA Pulaski Tech, and Philander Smith College. The speakers explore the concepts of the ACT through different sessions. We wanted to help students decrease the anxiety associated with standardized tests and empower them with real test-taking strategies. Students don’t understand that they don’t have to know everything, that there are strategies that can help them score higher on tests. Then we end the day with an engaging activity, like an obstacle course, that allows them to review what they learned.”

More than 400 high school students have participated in the ACT Prep Express program since its inception in 2017. Of those, more than 70 percent said they feel more confident in at least three of the four subject areas covered for exam preparation.

The academy also participates in college fairs, hosts meetings with school counselors, facilitates college and ACT prep sessions, and offers fall retreats. Additionally, the Summer Bridge Academy is a two-week residential program that prepares incoming freshmen for college-level work by eliminating the need for them to take remedial math and English courses.

“We are very proud of what Amber has been able to achieve with the Dr. Charles W. Donaldson Summer Bridge Academy initiative,” said Dr. Mark Allen Poisel, vice chancellor for student affairs. “She has continued to develop the program so we can reach many more high school students and increase their access to higher education. Her work, along with her team, is making a big difference in the Little Rock community.”

Smith is a graduate of UA Little Rock with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and a master’s degree in student affairs. She also earned a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology from Capella University.

She started her career at UA Little Rock in 2011 as interim assistant coordinator of the African American Male Initiative and Teaching Enhancements Affecting Minority Students programs. Prior to UA Little Rock, she worked as a corporate trainer, educational presenter, and psychology instructor.

ACT State Councils comprised of education and workforce professionals from all 50 states serve as the selection committee and select one champion per category for each participating state.

“We all know inspiring individuals who work tirelessly for the advancement of college and career readiness for all students,” said ACT Senior Vice President of State and Federal Programs Scott Montgomery. “The ACT College and Career Readiness Champions initiative lifts up their stories so that more people can be inspired to find their own path to success through the motivation and determination of the seniors, K-12, postsecondary and workforce champions leading the way.”

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