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Statewide tour seeks answers for improving post-high school education rate

Andrew Johnson, N.C. Works career coach with Haywood Community College, shares his thoughts with the focus group July 12. Holly Kays photo Andrew Johnson, N.C. Works career coach with Haywood Community College, shares his thoughts with the focus group July 12. Holly Kays photo

Educational leaders from across the mountain region convened at Cherokee Central Schools this month for an afternoon of conversation and collaboration around one central question — what can North Carolina communities do to better prepare their children for success against the unknown challenges of the future? 

The listening session, held Thursday, July 12, was the eighth stop on a nine-stop tour the My Future N.C. Commission made with the goal of learning what stands in the way of more North Carolina students seeking post-secondary education. After hearing from the communities, said Trip Stallings, Ph.D., and director of policy research for the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at N.C. State University, the commission will get to work on a plan to boost post-secondary attainment in the state. 

“I’ve been here (in N.C.) since 1988, and that’s plenty long enough to have seen dozens and dozens of commissions in this state produce reports, produce recommendations, get all excited and move forward on stuff and then disappear,” Stallings told the group of about 30 people gathered in the auditorium. “I will contend that part of the reason for that is that sometimes in this state we tend to have policies and ideas emanate from Raleigh and Charlotte out to the regions, and then the regions have to figure out how to translate that to do something with them. For me, the most important part of this listening tour is to have you contribute to that conversation.”

Stallings explained that post-secondary education doesn’t necessarily mean graduation from a four-year university. It could mean community college, trade school or innumerable certification programs that leave the graduate with skills that equip them to earn a living wage and support a family as they go out into the world. 

North Carolina will need to up its game to adequately prepare its young people for success in the future, Stallings said, citing a 2010 study from Georgetown University that estimated 65 percent of jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education by the year 2020. By contrast, North Carolina currently has a rate of about 47 percent post-secondary attainment — a “20 percent gap we need to close as quickly as possible but without any Band-Aids,” he said. 

“We’re also looking at the whole continuum from preschool all the way through post-secondary,” he added. “We’re doing that because you cannot increase post-secondary attainment if you don’t look at the whole pipeline.”

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That’s an effort that has already been going on in Western North Carolina for several years, spurred on by former Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, who passed away in June. Streamlining the journey from preschool to post-high school education — sometimes referred to as the P-16 pipeline — was a priority of Belcher’s, and he worked with WNC leaders to make it smoother. When UNC President Margaret Spellings created the My Future N.C. Commission in 2017, she invited Belcher to be one of its 49 members. In addition to the 49 commissioners, the body contains 18 subject matter experts, with representatives from preschool through twelfth grade education, post-secondary education and the workforce. 


Making the options known

To get their ideas on the table, listening session participants split into three different groups, spending 45 minutes discussing a list of questions organizers had prepared for them. Questions focused on which transitions are pivotal for student success, challenges to navigating those transitions and types of supports and community collaboration that could improve the end result. 

Many participants seemed to agree that earlier education about options for the future is needed, with more emphasis on showing students how to make those dreams happen. 

“Knowing what you’re good at and what your skills are and what that would translate to as far as a job, that conversation does not happen in high school and much less farther down,” said Randi Neff, Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative project coordinator for Southwestern Community College. “Counselors are just treading water. There’s no way they can do what they should do.”

While most kids have an idea of whether or not they want to go to a four-year university, fewer understand what a community college is, the options available there and the quality of education delivered, said Andrew Johnson, an N.C. Works career coach with Haywood Community College. 

“I’ve been in education in general for a long time, but I couldn’t tell you what a computer integrated machine was and how much that paid per hour,” he said. “How is this kid in high school going to know other than the one that comes into my office and asks, ‘What is my future going to be?’”

Empowering kids to be the first in their families to pursue more than a high school diploma — and helping their parents understand why it’s important — is vital as well, said Melanie Price, college and career readiness coordinator at SCC. 

“I want to see them value themselves and value this education, and instead of the parents to say, ‘Well, I didn’t need it. You don’t need it,’ to say, ‘I didn’t have it, but you can do it,’” Price said. 

However, educators face a number of logistical obstacles in meeting those higher-level goals. Participants spoke at length about the lack of internet access in the mountains, and how many opportunities that cuts off for people whose circumstances don’t line up to pursue the “traditional” route of going away to study at a four-year college. 

“We tend to underestimate people that maybe never even thought about going to college somewhere, but if they can get online they can do a lot of things,” said Jeff McDaris, superintendent of Transylvania County Public Schools. “Right now in rural areas, particularly in the mountains because of our topography, that’s a monstrous challenge.”

The impacts of poverty and childhood trauma can also keep otherwise able students from reaching their potential, said Beverly Payne, assistant superintendent of Cherokee Central Schools. 

“There’s so much adverse childhood trauma that students face,” she said. “I think if we could start even before pre-K teaching some of these appropriate coping skills so that some of the inappropriate coping skills don’t get set in place, I think that would help.”


Seeking support

Asked what some of the most helpful supports would be to address these challenges, participants floated a number of ideas — bringing people into classes to talk about their careers, hiring more school social workers and psychologists, addressing barriers such as transportation and lack of affordable child care, and teaching professional workplace skills early on. But most of the conversation focused on a different topic.

“I don’t know who was going to say it, but I’ll say it. Funding,” said Bo Gray, vice president for college and community initiatives at Tri-County Community College in Murphy.

Gray said that community colleges are “penalized coming and going” when it comes to finances and that regulations leave them unable to be aggressive in taking advantage of opportunities. It’s harder for small schools, too, because they don’t have the economies of scale available at larger community colleges. Unlike in the K-12 system, there is no small school funding available for community colleges. 

“It is the big community colleges that are profiting because of the way the systems are set up,” he said. “We’re just scraps at the table in a sense.”

Size of funding aside, making funding more stable could go a long way toward allowing community colleges to more strategically plan their approach to the problems at hand, said Wendy Hines, vice president of instruction at HCC. Funding fluctuates based on the number of students enrolled. 

“As community colleges we campaigned four years ago, five years ago, to have average funding so we would get to average the past two years together to keep it from dropping dramatically, but it makes it hard because the budget is a moving target,” she said. 

As to the question of collaboration, there isn’t currently a region-wide group focused on bringing together school and business leaders to improve post-secondary attainment and employability, focus group members said. 

Some participants, however, seemed wary of hinging too much on such collaboration, especially when it comes to reaching out across the state. 

“Do we want the same goals?” McDaris asked. “I think there’s a big difference as we’re seeing with the economy and the job market between rural North Carolina and inside the interstate triangle. It’s becoming exacerbated every day, I think.”

When the three focus groups came back together at the end of the day, Stallings said many of their concerns had been echoed at the eight other listening sessions held already, but some new themes had emerged that day as well, with all three focus groups having remarkably similar conversations. 

“It was as if you all had an intercom into the other rooms, because the themes were so strongly aligned,” he said. 


Collaboration in Cherokee

Leaders on the Qualla Boundary are working locally to pursue some of the same goals that the My Future N.C. Commission is chasing on the statewide level. 

Formed in 2015, the Qualla Education Collaborative contains about 30 Cherokee Central Schools educators, tribal employees and Cherokee Preservation Foundation members, who meet monthly to develop strategies to support the success of Cherokee kids from “cradle to career.”

“I think it’s allowed us to create our own vision for ourselves,” said Debora Foerst, principal at Cherokee Central High School, during a panel discussion about the QEC within the July 12 My Future N.C. listening session. “We don’t have a big voice at the state level to decide what we do educationally. We don’t have a big voice at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to decide what we do educationally.”

The effort has been spurred through a pair of Cherokee Preservation Foundation grants, one in 2016 for planning and another in 2017 to build capacity. In the next couple of years, the public should start to see some action come out of the collaborative, said CCS Superintendent Michael Murray. 

“One of the things we had to do was involve stakeholders, and that takes time, that doesn’t just happen,” said Murray, who took the superintendent’s job in July 2017 after six years as superintendent of Jackson County Schools. “First year you build your trust. Next year you start pulling people that are the stakeholders and figuring out which ones are influential and then — rock and roll by year five or six.”

Long-term, the QEC leaders would like to see the organization extend beyond Cherokee to become a regional collaborative. 

“If we’re able to run the QEC in the manner we’re doing it now and then scale that up slowly and introduce people I think it can be successful (as a regional entity),” said Yona Wade, director of community affairs for Cherokee Central Schools. 

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