Gary Newton, CCE
Department: Arkansas Learns, AERF
Title: President & CEO
On August 1, 2012, Gary Newton, former executive vice president of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, was recruited by Luke Gordy, founding executive director of Arkansans for Education Reform Foundation (AERF), to become the first president and CEO of Arkansas Learns.
One year later, upon Luke Gordy's retirement, Newton was selected by the board to succeed his mentor and also assume management responsibilities for AERF.
Initially funded by a grant from The Walton Family Foundation, Arkansas Learns is projected to be independent and self-sustaining.
“Over the years, I had offers to lead other chambers – Jefferson City, Missouri, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, among others – but the opportunity for professional advancement and personal reward have never trumped my desire to do what I love in a place I love,” Newton said.
“So, when passion aligns with opportunity, one must gratefully answer the call,” Newton continued. “I was honored and humbled to have been asked to launch and lead this statewide initiative to address what I believe to be the greatest public issue of our time.”
The son of a public school superintendent and a guidance counselor, Newton credits his parents, principally his late father Marvin Newton, as his inspiration for accepting this challenge.
“The youngest of ten children, Dad grew up on a rocky farm in eastern Baxter County. His skills with a basketball (he remains fifth all-time in Arkansas high school scoring average) enabled him to be the first and only member of his family to attend and graduate from college. That single accomplishment changed not only his life, but the trajectory of his children and our children, while impacting four generations of students over a 46-year career.”
As Newton explains it, education has always been “that great step up to opportunity.” But, he believes “that fundamental promise is being denied to our most vulnerable students who are trapped in under or non-performing schools.”
An eighth generation native of the Arkansas Ozarks, Newton attended public schools in Mountain Home, Fayetteville and Lebanon, Missouri. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, from 1983 to 1988, he served as executive vice president of the then-Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. In his combined twelve years with the Chamber, he was instrumental in the creation and implementation of enduring Chamber initiatives, such as Leadership Greater Little Rock, Create Little Rock, and most recently, Arkansas Production Alliance (arfilm).
He is a graduate of the Institute for Organization Management and University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute, and is a Certified Chamber Executive (CCE). He is also a member of the Association of Film Commissioners International.
Newton served on the Chancellor-appointed Provost Search Committee for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is a former board chairman of Riverfest. He currently serves as acting chairman of the founding board of the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute (AMPI).
In 1988, he turned down the presidency of the Biloxi-Gulfport Chamber to accept a national scholarship to train at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York.
After 17 years as a performing artist, writer and filmmaker in New York and Los Angeles, he and his Detroit-native wife Alanna, also an actor and screenwriter, relocated to his native Arkansas with their then-three-year-old twins.
“We came home to Little Rock for a better life for our children, led by the promise of excellent public schools. When we found otherwise, rather than simply complaining or abandoning, we chose to get busy to change it, not just for our kids, but for all students, particularly those who have no choice where they are educated.”
Newton continued, “It is often said, that ‘education and economic development are inseparable.’ By allying with parents, employers and citizens across the state, Arkansas Learns intends puts that statement into action.”
He closed, “Economic development is now driven by talent. If we can’t, don’t or won’t educate all of our children, our communities, regions and state will fail.”
It was the absence of public secondary education in his West Little Rock community and lack of responsiveness by the Little Rock School Board which first prompted the father of public school students to engage in public education advocacy. As a result, Quest Middle School of West Little Rock, a Responsive Education Solutions open-enrollment public charter school opened with 170 students on August 18, 2014. In its second year, Quest has 250 students in Grades 6 through 9, while growing a wait list and a high school.
The beginnings of Newton's advocacy are chronicled in 77 posts on his blog (garynewton.org) from February 2, 2011 to June 2, 2012. Since August 1, 2012, all of his posts are at ArkansasLearns.org.
To have Gary Newton speak at your meeting or event, email him the details at gnewton@ArkansasLearns.org.