May 22, 2011
The season of graduations is upon us. Across the country, this year’s college graduates will participate in a ritual that will include listening to occasionally dull speeches, marching across stages to pick up hard-earned diplomas and — decked out in caps and gowns — smiling for the camera.
For most of these graduates, the next stop will be entrance into the work force. Theirs will be a different career path than their younger counterparts, high school seniors who will graduate and who, without the benefit of additional education or training, will likely struggle to earn a livable income.
Of late, there have been many discussions in our region about the need for local access to a university. Much of the focus has centered on economic development in the form of job creation and retail growth that having a campus here would create.
I fully endorse the New College 2012 Commission’s decision to develop the New College Institute into a branch of one of Virginia’s existing universities; so many of them offer excellent academic programs that support our region’s needs for higher education. Yet, as an educator, I see the need for local access to a university in another light. Bringing a university branch here is not just an economic necessity. It is a moral imperative, something that must be done sooner, rather than later.
When I assess the progress made by the school divisions in our region over the past few years, I am confident that the local pipeline of students prepared for college exists. Our records indicate clearly that we have been graduating college-ready high school seniors for some time. Our graduates are prepared for a knowledge economy and complete their education ready for the rigors of advanced study whether at a university, community college or in a technical or vocational program.
Among last year’s 536 Henry County Public Schools’ graduates, 83 percent planned to enroll in college or enter the military. In fact, a number of our high school students who participate in the ACE Academy graduate from high school with college credit earned by taking classes at Patrick Henry Community College.
Benchmarks that document their readiness for college are ample. One hundred percent of Henry County Schools have been fully accredited by the commonwealth for the past seven years, a rating that reflects overall achievement in English, math, science, history and social science.
Countywide, enrollment in Advanced Placement classes, which are taught at the college level, has more than tripled by the students in our two high schools. By encouraging all of our students to take the most rigorous courses, including AP, dual enrollment and highly technical CTE courses, I am confident that our students are as prepared for the demands of higher education as their peers from across the state.
Yet, too many of our high school graduates do not earn that coveted bachelor’s degree. Based on my assessment, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in that pursuit is the absence of a local university. It is important to reflect on the many ways in which having a local university campus will change the culture of a region.
Children who grow up in communities where access to college is possible are more likely to be motivated to do well in school and aspire to attend that local university. A campus symbolizes possibilities and signals opportunities that lie ahead for those willing to try. This is especially important for our community, where many of our high school graduates will qualify for enough financial assistance to cover the cost of tuition and books, perhaps, but may lack the resources to cover the living expenses of a child away from home.
With a local university, a child’s concept of college is demystified. College, in this context, is a part of the community and easily becomes a part of their expected continuum of life. I know this from my own experience. As a child growing up in Washington, D.C., the city’s many universities represented a very real possibility in my own young life.
The prospect of higher education will be bolstered by the many Martinsville and Henry County school teachers who will take advantage of the continuing education opportunities available at a university branch. A cycle will evolve, one where our local school teachers — participating in continuing education at the branch campus — will be able to more effectively instill the value of higher education in their students because of their knowledge of the university, while gaining knowledge that will bring the most modern best practices into our classrooms.
Another bonus for our school children will be the partnerships that will undoubtedly be formed between the branch campus and area school systems. Research and development of new approaches to teaching special education, reading, science and math are exploding on university campuses.
Integral to the development of new, evidence-based teaching methods will be implementing them in the classroom. Partnerships to bring these new-but-proven teaching practices into the classroom will strengthen our own public education programs and immerse our students in learning opportunities that otherwise would not be available.
A university branch in our region will indeed improve our economy, but that’s only one of the benefits. More importantly, it will change the culture of learning in a very fundamental way for everyone who is a participant and partner in the education of our children years before they even set foot on the stage to receive their high school diplomas.
(Editor’s note: Anthony D. Jackson, Ed.D., is the superintendent of Henry County Public Schools.)
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