First State of Education event launched

Published 9:02 am Tuesday, October 3, 2017

By Leila Case

AMERICUS — The state of local education and the importance of community involvement were addressed at an outstanding program here Tuesday night.
A crowd of about 150 representing a cross section of Sumter Countians ranging from educators, community business leaders, elected and appointed officials, honor students and concerned citizens turned out for the dinner event at the John Pope Center Industrial Technology Center on the campus of South Georgia Technical Institute, the event’s host site.
Sponsored by the One Sumter Economic Development Foundation Inc. through the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce’s education division, the inaugural State of Education in Sumter County has been in the planning stages for some time, noted Rhett Simmons, chamber chairman.
Perhaps the attention to preparation is what led to excellent results. Many attendees remarked afterwards that the inaugural signature event was perhaps the best the chamber has offered in some time, describing it as positive without being soft — addressing a serious issue in a positive, enlightening, interesting and comprehensive manner.
The evening began with a networking reception that preceded the seated dinner; however, the high point was the lively after-dinner panel discussion moderated by SGTC Dean of Academics David Finley that focused on the partnership between Sumter County’s five educational institutions.
Finley was introduced by Sandhya Muljibhai, chairman of the chamber’s education division and WIOA coordinator at SGTC. In her introductions she recognized a number of attendees and the outstanding students from the local school systems: Samiya McGee and Sadie Powe of Furlow Charter School; Kathleen Kinslow and Morgan Youngdale from Southland Academy; Jasmine Dew and Prerana Kumar representing Sumter County Schools; Jacob Porter and Jessica Reese from Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW), and Bailey Mills and Nikki Thompson, South Georgia Technical College (SGTC).
Muljibhai introduced guest panelists John Watford, Ed.D., SGTC president; Neal Weaver, Ph.D., president of GSW; Torrance Choates, Ed.D., superintendent of Sumter County Schools; Ty Kinslow, Southland Academy headmaster, and Elizabeth Dillard Kuipers, Ph.D., principal of Furlow Charter School.
Explaining the format, Finley said six questions would be asked and answered by two of the guests with one response from one of the post-secondary institutions and a secondary response from one of the K-12 partners. Each higher education institution would respond to three questions and the K-12 systems would answer two each. The discussion concluded with a brief closing statement from each.
Although “it takes a village to raise a child” went unspoken, the proverb set the tone of the discussion, as the guest panelists’ collective message stressed the importance of education, the educational choices and opportunities that are available here, partnership, collaboration and community involvement.
Weaver and Kuipers responded to Finley’s first question: How are schools working together in Sumter County to maximize the student experience and educational opportunities in our community? Weaver said, “GSW offers dual enrollment — this provides a great opportunity for the students to attend classes at the university as well as SGTC. We partner with Sumter County Schools in the induction of new teachers hired by that system.” Kuipers said Furlow Charter School has established a “serve learning” program and a partnership at Magnolia Manor that is within safe walking distance of the school as well as a project-based learning and enrichment program — the GSW Chess Club — and successful extra curriculular  programs that include Odyssey of the Mind, Jubilee International Club and other arts and economic activities.
The next question directed at Watford and Choates addressed the needs of industry to build a workforce pipeline to respond to both current and future anticipated needs.
Watford stated SGTC offers courses on aviation maintenance, transportation and industry. His response was candid as he pointed out these types of industries are not located here. “Our service area is limited,” said Watford. “Statistics show that 80 percent of our students grow up here and remain here until they die.” He pointed out that 70 percent of their enrollment is involved in on-the-job training, apprenticeships and interns as well as dual enrollment, having 120 students from Americus-Sumter High School.
Choates said economic development drives the community. He stated the high school is creating pathways into this area and the Sumter County Board of Education is directly involved with the building of the new high school and career academy.
Kinslow and Weaver were asked how they measure student success on their respective campuses. In replying, Kinslow stated the measure of student success on campus is done in many ways that progress with varied changes and learning new skills from lower school though middle and high school levels. “More than 95 percent of our graduates advance on to colleges and universities according to statistics,” said Kinslow. “Academic achievement is important, but Southland also has an outreach program that requires our students to volunteer 40 percent of their time to serve others living in our community.”
Weaver responded to the query by saying, “We want our students to stay in school, get a degree and a job after graduation. But that is not the only thing we worry about for we still have about 30 percent of our freshman that don’t become sophomores — student success is a work in progress and it our business to encourage and involve them in solving the problem and work as a team. Other skills are very important as well.”
Watford and Kuipers then were asked to share their insight on student engagement in the school and community, and the opportunities offered on their campuses such as advanced programs, extra curriculular activities and organization and what the business community can do to support student engagement or enhance experimental learning for students.
Kuipers said Furlow Charter encourages and nurtures the students’ aspects of their education by building their confidence in what they can do and to get involved. “We keep their minds busy with extra-curricular activities and plans are underway for some fledgling sports such as an archery team is planned in the near future,” said Kuipers.
Watford said retention of students is “very critical,” revealing that SGTC is very proud that 80 percent of its students graduate, according to statistics. Additionally, he said the technical college’s student remediation model is being tested across the state. He gave examples of the varied methods used to retain students: a learning lab, the Skills USA program, a tutoring program, intramural games, extra curriculum activities and an honor society.
Choates and Weaver then were asked about the importance for businesses and industry to invest in education in Sumter County and the difference that investment makes for their institutions and the overall community.
Choates said it is cheaper to educate students than to take care of criminals down the road. “Education is the key and heart of the community and without this we would be lost and the community and many business leaders would be lost. It is very important that businesses invest in education here.”
Weaver remarked that “investment bridges the gap between the business community and what we can do to produce a better product (the students). There are many opportunities for you to be involved: serve on an advisory committee, a student mentoring or tutoring program, attend a basketball game or other sporting event, a live theater performance or concert and congratulate at least one of the participants —  your encouragement makes a huge difference. By coming together to invest in each other is the community we would like to have.”
“This has been a huge success,” said Finley, and concluded the program by thanking the panelists for their candor and thoughtful responses, their insightful information and points on how citizens can make a difference by getting involved in local education.
Muljibhai closed the program and presented each panelist a gift. The program began with a warm welcome presented by Watford followed by recognition of sponsors announced by Simmons. Nikki Thompson, cosmetology student at SGTC, led the pledge to the American flag and gave the invocation.