Education is the key to economic development. Industries need problem-solvers: educated, trainable workers who can go above and beyond classroom instruction.
Strategic planner Phil Hardwick has seen it time and again in his work as a project manager with Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development. Over the past three years, he's worked with 13 Northeast Mississippi schools to increase the numbers of students admitted to college.
Hardwick is showing school leaders how to connect students' coursework to future employment, how to create a college-attendance culture, and how to unite schools with community organizations, especially local businesses.
While this work was funded through the Appalachian Regional Commission's Appalachian Higher Education Network grant, Hardwick emphasized that the Stennis Institute offers planning sessions to school systems that ask for them.
"This is the whole purpose of Mississippi State -- we're a land-grant institution, and we're out there improving our communities," he said. "If a school district wanted someone to facilitate a goal-setting session, we'll provide that service and show them how."
Starkville School District recently had its first of four planning sessions, and with the kinds of results Hardwick's seen in the districts that received the ARC grant, he expects many more districts across the state will soon request these services.
"It's been a very successful project," Hardwick said. "What we've learned is, a lot of schools are isolated from the community and a lot of the businesses don't have interaction with the schools, so consequently, there's this gap. Once they get connected, the results are pretty impressive."
Stennis's work with Louisville High School in Winston County has been just one model example, he said.
Louisville Municipal School District, Winston County Economic Development District, East Central Community College, the Winston County Journal and local government officials united to develop the "Getcha Head in the Game" initiative to encourage students to stay in school and enroll in postsecondary institutions following graduation.
Students began participating in intensive tutoring, ACT-preparation workshops and college visits. Art students created postsecondary posters to hang in the schools' hallways. Taylor Machine Works began supplying materials to the metal fabrication lab.
In 2009, only 44 percent of Louisville High School graduates continued their education at the next level, but just two years later, 84 percent went on to postsecondary education or training. The success garnered Gov. Phil Bryant's attention; Louisville's collaborative team received the 2012 Governor's Award for community partnerships at the high school level.
Hardwick explained that the increase of students enrolling in postsecondary training reflects a change of culture at Louisville High School.
"The more you get exposed to, the higher your ambitions become. It's about raising the ambition level. These students start out only seeing the horizon, but they're getting there and seeing that they can be more," he said.
Metal fabrication teacher Shane McDaniel said Taylor Machine Works' contributions of equipment and materials are making a real difference in students' lives.
"It costs so much to operate a program like this; there's a great cost just to train a welder, but we're doing it at less cost because of Taylor. It's benefitting these kids to do a two-year certificate and not have to pay one cent. Then they have that out of high school," McDaniel said.
His students are winning SkillsUSA competitions, where teens demonstrate both occupational and leadership skills, he said. District winners have gone on to place in the top three in the state, and their pictures hang in the metal fabrication workshop to inspire other students to achieve at high levels.
After high school, many of McDaniel's students continue their studies at MSU or East Central Community College, the two postsecondary institutions that seniors visit before graduation, he said.
The achievement at Louisville is just one example of success for schools taking advantage of Stennis's promoting community-school partnerships. Other districts have provided different kinds of help -- passing school bonds, recruiting volunteers to help students apply to college or offering new scholarships from businesses or individuals -- but all these collaborations are resulting in more students continuing learning past high school.
"Stennis can expose the rest of the state to this," Hardwick said. "You're going to see this more and more."
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