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South Georgia Tech hosts 2nd annual State of Education dinner

By Ken Gustafson

AMERICUS — A “Who’s Who” of local educators, business leaders, concerned citizens, and politicians from throughout Sumter County gathered Tuesday evening at the John Pope Industrial Technology Center on the campus of South Georgia Technical College for the second-annual State of Education Dinner to discuss education in Sumter County. The event was presented by the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce.
A networking reception began at 5:30 p.m., followed by dinner at 6 p.m. George Wall, a senior at Southland Academy, led the invocation, followed by the pledge of allegiance. After that, the discussion forum commenced. The panelists were Neal Weaver, Ph.D., president of Georgia Southwestern State University; John Watford, Ed.D., president of South Georgia Technical College; Torrance Choates, Ed.D., superintendent of Sumter County Schools; Ty Kinslow, headmaster of Southland Academy; and Elizabeth Kuipers, Ph.D., principal of Furlow Charter School.
The forum focused on education in Sumter County and how educators and the local business community can work together to help students thrive once they enter the workforce. Don Porter, a local manager for Georgia Power, was the moderator. He asked nine questions of the panelists, and at least two panelists answered each question.
Question No. 1: “In your opinion, how are schools working together in Sumter County to maximize the student experience and educational opportunities in our community?” This question was directed to Choates and Kinslow.
Choates: “The Sumter County School System has an extensive professional development plan in which our leaders constantly work together to try to gather ways to enhance the academic achievement of all. One of the things that we’re doing, which is new this year, is reaching out to all of the churches in the community. One of the goals that we have is to try to get a church to mentor each grade level. We think that churches have a lot they can offer. The churches can reach students and parents that we can’t reach.”

Don Porter, local manager, Georgia Power, served as moderator.

Kinslow: “I think that our schools are working together more than we have ever done in the past,” Kinslow said. He mentioned that bus driver Dott Crook said that all of the students that she encountered from the various schools in Sumter County are all well-mannered and polite. “She was talking about students from Furlow Charter, Americus-Sumter and Southland. She said that when they get on the bus, they all interact and have a good time together,” Kinslow said. “I think that says something for all the schools and parents in our community.” Kinslow also praised the fact that both South Georgia Tech and Georgia Southwestern State provide dual enrollment for high school students in Sumter County.
Question No. 2: “How are you to address the needs of industry by building a workforce pipeline to respond to both current and future anticipated needs?” This question was directed to Weaver and Watford.
Weaver: “We graduate teachers, nurses, accountants, and bankers. I assume that all of you in this room consider yourselves to be in the workforce. We believe that we have a role to play in workforce development.” He said that GSW has invested in a unique program in which students will be taught how to compose music for video games. “Nation-wide, there are 1,000 video game companies that do video game development, and 200 of those companies are here in Georgia,” Weaver said. “A part of what they do is they produce background music. We are the only school in the state that is going to be teaching video game music composition.” Weaver said that he hopes that years from now, there will be a company in Americus that specializes in making music for video games. “I think that’s workforce development. That’s how we are trying to stay ahead to make sure that we are creating degree programs that make a difference,” he said.
Watford: “Our mission is to further the economy of Georgia through workforce education. Everything we do has to lead to a job that is better than minimum wage, or we don’t need to be doing it,” Watford said. He said that SGTC does a constant re-evaluation of not only where students are going to work today, but where they will need to go to work tomorrow. “Jobs change and skill sets change. People need to change and education changes. How we deliver that education needs to change,” he said.
Question No. 3
Porter asked Kuipers and Weaver how they go about keeping their students engaged at their respective schools.
Kuipers: “I think that keeping students engaged is essential to them actually learning anything. Furlow is founded on the premise of project-based learning, which means that we have some direct instruction going on, but in our classrooms, the way that students show what they know is through projects of different kinds,” she said. She talked about a unique foreign language program they have at Furlow. “We have some unusual clubs, such as the Jubilee International Club. We call our students scholars. All of our scholars, grades K-11, take a foreign language. Grades K-6 take a semester of Spanish and a semester of French every year. The club is an attempt to give them opportunities to use those language skills that they are learning,” Kuipers said.
Weaver introduced Laura Boren, Ph.D., to the crowd. Boren is the new vice president for Student Engagement and Success at GSW. “She is really in charge of creating an environment on the campus that gets students to stick around and to understand that their education is not just what happens in the classroom. It’s what happens around the classroom,” Weaver said. He went on to say that GSW has 60 groups and organizations that students can get involved in. He told the business leaders in the room that if they want to get involved, they can offer internships to get the students engaged outside of the classroom.
Question No. 4: “Please share with us your perspectives on why is important for business and industry to invest in education in Sumter County? How does it make a difference to your work and in the vitality of your community?” This question was directed to Kuipers and Watford.
Kuipers: “I think that it’s very important for the educational institutions and the businesses to work together. We are all training your workers. You are providing jobs which, in turn, give us students to train because families come here. I think that the business and educational communities are absolutely interwoven.”
Watford: “You know as a business owner or as someone who is part of an organization that your business rises and falls based on the talent of the people that work with you. We get that at South Georgia Tech and we see every opportunity that we can to communicate with business owners in our communities. We want to hear what you have to say about how we train your workers,”Watford said. “I have been told repeatedly by several commissioners who have headed our organization that we have the strongest foundation of any technical college in Georgia.” He said the reason for the “strongest foundation” is because of the support from the local business community.
Question No. 5: “I want to focus on the needs for consistent messaging: the education brand of Sumter County,” Porter said. “Please tell us what message should we share collectively as a community, whether as a business or educational partner, about education in Sumter County. What is our single message that you would like to share?” The question was directed to Choates and to Weaver.
Weaver: “This one is rather easy for me, and I’ll keep it really short. There is a direct and undisputable correlation between the educational attainment of a community or a state and the median income of that community or that state,” Weaver said. “There is a direct and undisputable connection. If we want our community to improve, we have to improve educational attainment of our community.”
Choates: “Education is the foundation for the success of a community. It is also a deterrent to the negative factors such as crime and violence,” Choates said. He said that teachers and educators deal with students who come from different facets of life. “My elevator speech would be this: Better schools build better communities,” he said.
Question No. 6: This question was directed to Kinslow and Kuipers. “Where and how does real learning take place and what does that mean to you or your institution?”
Kinslow: “I think Dr. Kuipers said it earlier. Real learning takes place when students are engaged. We have to find out how to get them engaged,” he said. He said that one of the greatest things takes place when a teacher comes into a classroom wanting to teach and a student comes into a classroom wanting to learn. “All of us want our teachers to be enthusiastic, but we also want them to encourage the students. There’s a balance there,” he said. Kinslow said that for him, real learning has ultimately taken place when a former student comes back to the school and tells him “thank you.”
Kuipers: “The vast majority of children in our community need so much help in basic, basic ways. I’ve got a third grader who comes to school dressed. That’s a success. It’s a success because his mom managed to get him there,” she said, adding that real learning is different for everybody. “A child learning not to kick the person sitting next to him when that person says something they don’t like. That’s real learning to that person,” she said.
Choates remarked that real learning takes place when there is a change in behavior and attitude on the part of the student.
Question No. 7: Porter asked Kinslow how students have evolved over the years.
Kinslow said that question was a tough one, but answered it as best he could. “There aren’t many typical students anymore,” he said. Kinslow also said that the process of giving a student a chance to learn and plan for his or her future hasn’t changed since he was in school over 35 years ago. In his opinion, the thing that has changed is the fact that there are so many electronic devices. He said that students need to be taught what the workforce wants, such as the core values of being on time, showing up, working hard, perseverance, and being able to relate face to face.
Choates said that decades ago, students were motivated to learn. He said that if he did another dissertation, he would do it on the “Smart Phone Generation.” Choates said that he wonders if a generation was ruined because of smart phones. He explained to the crowd that, in his opinion, the smart phone has been a factor in things such as obesity, lack of meaningful conversations in the home, and a lack of engagement in the classroom. “We’re dealing with motivational factors, even with students paying for college,” Choates said. “We need to get back to a strong foundational approach to education.”
Question No. 8 was directed to Watford and Weaver.
“How are your respective institutions working with area secondary systems to provide workforce training and dual enrollment opportunities?” Porter also asked them both how they see their role with the Ignite College and Career Academy, which will be built on the new campus of Americus-Sumter High School.
Weaver: “We are very engaged with dual enrollment. About 7-10 percent of our student population participates in dual enrollment,” he said. He also said that GSW is working with Americus-Sumter, Schley County, Southland and Lee County. “We’re anywhere that a school wants us to go and deliver dual credit, or if they have the capacity to send their students to our campus. We are working with them. We want to continue to do that. We think it’s a great program and we think it’s valuable,” he continued, adding that his only concern is that some students, such as high school freshmen, are getting involved so early. Weaver will be serving on the board of the new Ignite College and Career Academy. “I think the Ignite College and Career Academy is really going to be focusing on those ‘soft skills’ as we like to call them,” he said.
Watford: “The Technical College System of Georgia is the agency that is delivering the $3.2 million that we as a community are seeking for the Ignite College and Career Academy.” He said that he is excited about having the academy right next door to SGTC. The new Americus-Sumter High School, along with the academy, will be located across the street from SGTC. “The equipment and facilities that we have here are immediately accessible,” Watford said. He said the proximity of the Ignite College and Career Academy is going to be a tremendous value for SGTC to be able to facilitate demonstrations on equipment. As far as dual enrollment, Watford said they are serving every public and private school in Sumter County, Macon County, Marion County and Taylor County, just to name a few.
At the end, each panelist had a chance to make closing remarks. Porter asked each panelist the ninth and final question: What did they think it was going to take for this community to thrive in the workforce.
Kuipers said that it will take engagement throughout all the demographics of the entire community.
Choates remarked that the people of Sumter County need to be able to embrace, receive, and understand diversity. “Every student has an opportunity to be productive,” he said. “This community has the opportunity to set aside racial differences and accept students for who they are. We have to learn to be receptive of one another.”
Kinslow said that people need to be respectful to each other. “We’ve got a lot of great choices in our community, but there has to be teamwork,” he said.
Watford said that Sumter County is a great community. He gave the illustration of the late Sen. John McCain being at a town hall meeting when he was running for president of the United States. “Someone grabbed the microphone and started saying some inappropriate things about then Sen. Barack Obama,” Watford said. “McCain grabbed the microphone and said ‘Wait a minute. I might not agree with his policy, but Sen. Obama is a fine man, and I’m not going to stand here and listen to you say those kinds of things about this individual.’ We need to have that same attitude when we hear someone say something negative about Southland or about the Sumter County School System or about South Georgia Tech or any other school. We need to support each other, wave each other’s banner and keep moving ourselves forward.”
Weaver said that the most important thing that he heard during the event was that there is no person that should be given up on. “There is no student that doesn’t deserve our best effort and the best opportunity that we can give them,” Weaver said.