AR Briefly

Early childhood development specialist picked for Arkansas State Board of Education

By: - August 4, 2023 2:19 pm

The newest member of the Arkansas State Board of Education, Leigh Keener of Little Rock, speaks about early childhood development as Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks on. (Screenshot from Arkansas Governor’s Office livestream)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday made her second appointment to the Arkansas State Board of Education — an early childhood expert from Little Rock. 

Sanders tapped her longtime friend and fellow Central High grad Leigh Keener to the board.

Keener taught in the Little Rock School District and now runs an early childhood education nonprofit, Joyfully Engaged Learning Arkansas.

“But Leigh isn’t here because she is one of my best friends,” Sanders said at a Friday news conference. “She’s here because she’s one of our state’s best experts on education.”

Keener is a Little Rock native who graduated from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 2004. She also holds a certificate in early education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She was named Forest Park Elementary School’s teacher of the year in 2008 by the parent-teacher association. 

Keener participated in a LEARNS Act work group focused on early childhood education, and she said that would remain a strong focus of her work on the State Board of Education.

What is the Arkansas LEARNS Act?

“Families need to know that their children are more than just physically safe when in the care of others,” the mother of three said. “We need to know that our children are emotionally safe as well; that every action between our children and their caregivers is kind, positive, respectful and supportive. But even that isn’t enough. Our early learning centers must also prepare our children for kindergarten.”

The LEARNS Act, Sanders’ sweeping education overhaul that was passed earlier this year and took effect on Tuesday, expanded the purview of the State Board of Education to include early childhood education. Historically, the board has focused on K-12 education.

The new law also created the Office of Early Childhood within the Department of Education, directing the department and board to create the “Unified Early Childhood Care and Education System.”

Keener said she looked forward to guiding early childhood policy, which she said should focus on three key tenets: 

  • Families are the most critical educators in a child’s life.
  • Early learning should be based on the science of child development.
  • Children’s learning happens in the active and playful discovery of their environment and in interactions with caregivers and peers.

“Kindergarten readiness means so much more than being able to walk in a line or sit for a lesson,” Keener said. “It means language acquisition, vocabulary development and a deep understanding of the world around us.”

Keener’s appointment comes weeks after Sanders appointed a former Republican state legislator to the State Board of Education.

Members of the board serve seven-year terms.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.