Cross County High School Receives $50,000 NIET Founder's Award

March 10, 2022

Cross County High School Receives $50,000 NIET Founder's Award

The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) announced today that Cross County High School in Cross County School District located in Cherry Valley, Arkansas, has been selected as the recipient of the 2022 NIET Founder's Award and its $50,000 grand prize. NIET Founder and Chairman Lowell Milken, Co-President and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Joshua Barnett, and Co-President Laura Encalade surprised the school during the 2022 NIET National Conference in Dallas, Texas.

Cross County High School received the Founder’s Award because it exemplifies NIET’s work with schools to develop teacher leaders, collaborate on successful instructional practices, and provide feedback and support to address teacher and student needs. The implementation of these effective strategies – boosted by the support of Cross County School District under Superintendent Nathan Morris – improved Cross County High School’s graduation rate from 77% to 95% in only seven years. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Cross County School District is one of only a few districts in Arkansas to increase student performance from 2019 to 2021, and in 2021, Cross County High School students outperformed students statewide in all subjects. 

"Cross County High School’s success is not by chance: Principal Stephen Prince and his team have created a culture of shared leadership and collaboration that retains talented educators and motivates students to achieve at high levels," Milken said. "As educators analyze data, set goals, and develop strategies to meet them, students are developing those same higher-order skills crucial for success in school and life. It gives me great pleasure to congratulate Principal Prince, Cross County High School, and Superintendent Nathan Morris as the recipient of the 2022 NIET Founder’s Award. Cross County High School stands as a model for their community, state, and the nation."

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 300,000 teachers and three 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.

"When we establish the right structures and processes to support and grow our teachers, everyone wins," said Dr. Barnett. "Principal Prince and his team are building an environment where all teachers can thrive and all students can succeed, and that is exactly what we want to see at every school across the country."

"Cross County High’s performance stands out," said Encalade. "Their ability to improve achievement for students during the pandemic proves that when we focus on strengthening our foundational practices and support for teachers, we lay the groundwork for all students to be successful."

About Cross County High School

Cross County High School, located in Cherry Valley, Arkansas, 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 for Teacher and Student Advancement 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."

Implementing the TAP System has established consistent structures and processes that are yielding results. 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. 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."

The district is also part of the Arkansas Rural Educator Network (AREN), a partnership with the Walton Foundation, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) and NIET that specifically targets support for educators in rural Arkansas. 

About the NIET Founder's Award

Cross County High School was selected among five finalists throughout the U.S., with each receiving $10,000: Brown County High School (Brown County Schools, Indiana); Logansport High School (DeSoto Parish School Board, Louisiana); Somerset Elementary (Somerset Independent School District, Texas); and Southport 6th Grade Academy (Perry Township Schools, Indiana).

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.

For more information about NIET, visit the NIET newsroom. For interviews, 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.