Cross County High School Receives $10,000 as NIET Founder’s Award Finalist

February 15, 2022

Cross County High School Receives $10,000 as NIET Founder’s Award Finalist

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Cross County High School in Cross County School District, Arkansas, has earned $10,000 for its selection as an NIET Founder's Award finalist. The school is among five across the country under consideration for the $50,000 grand prize, which will be announced at the NIET National Conference in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, March 10, 2022, at 12 p.m. CT.

"Principal Stephen Prince’s dedication to implementing powerful opportunities for leadership, professional growth, and competitive compensation have made Cross County High a destination of choice for educators and a beacon of pride for students," said NIET Chairman and Founder Lowell Milken. "We commend Principal Prince and Superintendent Nathan Morris for deepening their commitment to a system to advance educator effectiveness and in turn student learning year after year."

For more than 20 years, NIET has partnered with schools, districts, states, and universities to ensure all students have effective educators. Its work to develop teacher leaders, support successful instructional strategies, and build educator capacity to address student needs have served more than 9,000 schools and have impacted more than 275,000 teachers and 2.75 million students.

NIET's partner schools have shown success by both outperforming similar schools and having greater teacher retention. Schools including Cross County High School have continued to advance during the pandemic through the use of NIET's tools and resources to support instructional excellence and learning acceleration, provide coaching from expert leaders and trainers, and engage a large network of educators united around shared learning. The Founder's Award was created by Lowell Milken to honor one school annually for exceptional implementation of NIET's principles to build educator excellence and advance student success.

"Cross County High School faces a unique set of challenges as a rural district, and educators come to school every day to make sure their students are supported and equipped to be successful," said NIET Senior Vice President of Services Vicky Condalary. "Their leadership team’s commitment to growing and supporting effective teachers is making a difference, and it has been an honor for our team to witness their progress."

Founder's Award recipients are selected by NIET based on their efforts to make instructional excellence the cornerstone of school improvement; plan for regular professional learning focused on real-time needs of teachers and students; create a culture of collaboration and reflection; and leverage teacher leaders and administrators to drive student growth. Cross County High has employed these principles in a comprehensive way as part of a district-wide effort to implement some of NIET's key initiatives starting in 2009.

What Sets Cross County High Apart

Cross County High, located in Cherry Valley, serves 300 students, all of whom receive free or reduced-price lunch benefits. The school is one of only two schools in the Cross County School District, a small, rural community located about an hour south of Jonesboro. Principal Stephen Prince and his leadership team have delved deeply into NIET’s TAP System to develop a collaboration structure that builds teachers' skill sets and addresses the educational inequities and challenges of serving a rural community.

"For our small school and our small community, [NIET] has been a game changer for us," said Prince. "The partnership came around at the best moment because we were looking to reform our school, support our teachers more, make them even more effective, grow our students, and help them achieve more."

Despite the challenges the pandemic has presented for schools over the last few years, Cross County School District is one of only a few districts in Arkansas to increase student performance from 2019 to 2021. In 2021, Cross County High students outperformed students statewide in all subjects. The district is also part of the Arkansas Rural Educator Network (AREN), a program that provides customized professional learning to 25 rural school districts across Arkansas. In 2021, Cross County High also achieved a 95% graduation rate.

Implementing the TAP System has established consistent structures and processes that are yielding results at Cross County High. Regular meetings with educators, called cluster meetings, have provided a dedicated collaboration time for teachers to focus on students and their school-wide improvement goals. School leaders are using the NIET rubric to create ongoing feedback for teachers, highlighting areas that need refinement while also reinforcing teachers’ strengths. This ongoing coaching is leading to a significant improvement in instructional practices for the school. "This past school year, all teachers were rated effective or higher," said Prince. "Their instruction is top notch."

Like many schools across the country, recruiting and retaining effective teachers is a challenge for Cross County High School. By integrating TAP structures, the school has increased retention of effective teachers from 75% to 96% in only four years. "We are a rural school district, and our base salary is typically lower than many of the surrounding districts," said Prince. "Multiple career paths, on-going embedded professional development, instructionally focused accountability, and performance-based compensation have all worked to help CCHS attract and retain effective teachers over the past decade."

Cross County High School joins fellow finalists Brown County High School (Brown County Schools, Indiana); Southport 6th Grade Academy (Perry Township Schools, Indiana); Logansport High School (DeSoto Parish School Board, Louisiana); and Somerset Elementary (Somerset Independent School District, Texas) in contention for the $50,000 grand prize.

For images of Cross County High and more information about NIET, visit the NIET newsroom. For interviews and requests to attend the Founder's Award announcement, please contact Jenny Sawyer at or (256) 652-1376. Learn more about the conference at Follow conference news – including the Founder's Award – on Facebook and Twitter @NIETteach or via #NIET2022.