College, Students Continue to Excel Despite Challenges

College, Students Continue to Excel Despite Challenges

Mid-South Community College recently aced its State Performance Funding Methodology “exam,” and our students continue to excel in variety of academic, technical, and professional pursuits. Both our institution and our students persist despite what many would consider overwhelming obstacles as we repeatedly demonstrate what can be accomplished when commitment, effort, and divine intervention come together.

MSCC earned 9.87 points out of 10 (98.7%) on the annual Performance Funding Methodology assessment conducted by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. We outperformed 16 of the state’s two-year colleges in the process and ranked sixth overall for such factors as course completion, progression, credentials, and region/mission.

While we’re not completely satisfied with anything less than a 10, we’re proud of the amazing accomplishments of our institution while working with one of the most resource-challenged student populations in the state. According to the most recent state statistics, only one two-year college in Arkansas deals with more challenges than MSCC, and we easily eclipsed that institution’s score.

If you’re starting with people who are ill prepared academically (which we are), who are generally the first in their families to attend college (about 90 percent of our students), who need significant financial aid to even consider pursuing higher education (around 90 percent again), and you’re funded at 55 percent of the what the state says you really need to have to operate, you might have some serious issues. But we’re overcoming many of those issues because we have a lot of folks working really hard to make a difference for our students.

For someone on the East Coast looking at us with a traditional university mindset, we’re abject failures. What they don’t understand is that our goal is take students where they are and move them as close to the front of the line as we can. To some, that’s an associate degree; to others, it may be one or two classes that make them more employable. It could also be a high school equivalency certificate. Some, if not many, of our students will never earn a degree from Mid-South Community College. But if they can get the basic education or technical training that can help them land a decent job, they, and we, have succeeded and reached a real-world goal.

And our students are definitely meeting the challenges. Here is a partial list of their recent accomplishments:

  • Of the 2015 graduates required to take the Career Readiness Certificate exam, 28 earned gold-level recognition, 77 earned silver, and 18 earned bronze
  • Of the 137 graduates eligible for honors (students must complete an associate degree), 66 earned either cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laud recognition
  • Of the 28 Tech Center (high school) students who participated in ACT KeyTrain® training and took the WorkKeys® assessment, 20 earned gold CRCs and 3 earned bronze
  • All seven Emergency Medical Technician students from the spring 2015 semester who took the state practical skills test passed to earn Arkansas certification
  • Twenty-four developmental math students completed two or more courses during the spring term
  • Two MSCC students who completed the Teacher Education program on our campus through Arkansas State University received master’s degrees in May
  • All students who have taken machining classes in the past three semesters are working in jobs related to their training
  • One young man who first came to us in 2004 (before taking a seven-year hiatus from higher education) managed to land a machinist job at Smith & Nephew based on what he learned in our classes even though he didn’t complete all of them.

So while we’re facing significant challenges, we are engineering some phenomenal turnarounds in the lives – and futures – of our students. Considering the significant lack of funding that we battle every day, I would put our performance up against anybody’s in the country.

Scholarship Effort Focuses on Helping ‘Working Poor’

Scholarship Effort Focuses on Helping ‘Working Poor’

Mid-South Community College’s Foundation has announced an aggressive campaign to raise $250,000 for a scholarship endowment designed to help folks trapped by circumstances beyond their control. The “Working for the Future Scholarship” will provide six $1,000 awards each year to boost working parents interested in improving their lot in life.

The biggest challenge we face as a community is taking people who are destined to be ensnared by their environment and giving them the resources they need to move beyond what they ever thought possible. If we give people a chance to dream, good, if not great, things can happen. Every time we empower someone to achieve their true God-given potential we are changing that person’s life while positively impacting our neighborhoods, and communities.

When we give someone a scholarship that pays for books and tuition, that’s a significant investment. If recipients, however, don’t have the ability to come to school every day because they don’t have transportation or money to buy food or clothes, we haven’t really helped them. That’s why we have to change our educational models and rethink how we invest in our community’s future.

The group we call “the working poor” is doing everything possible to make ends meet on a daily basis. Those folks have a couple kids, are paying rent, and are trying to keep an older vehicle running. They get up every morning and work just as hard, if not harder, than the next guy. This person is never late, works hard, is honest, and can pass a drug test. If fact, he can probably pass any test we want to give him with the right preparation. Because he didn’t have the ability to get the necessary education or a technical skill set, though, he never had a real chance to determine his future.

If you have people who are willing to get up and go to work every day, and their capacity to take care of themselves and their family is minimized because they don’t have the skills or the training to get better jobs, then that’s where we should be investing resources. When we invest in those people, the return is significant. These scholarships will help us change the model. The ability to dream and aspire is seminal to changing a future, and we must to continue to seek ways to help make that happen.

As far as I can see, the only drawback to the scholarship is name in front of it – “Dr. Glen Fenter.” The Foundation wants to recognize me for my 22+ years of guiding the college, but I honestly don’t need anything more than what I receive every day – the satisfaction of knowing that what we’re doing is positively impacting lives. Obviously, having my name attached to this effort is somewhat awkward for me, but its value is so great that I can live with that if it allows us to establish another venue for helping our students.

There is no scholarship money like his available to anybody anywhere in this state, and only a handful of opportunities exist throughout the country. I encourage you to support this effort – certainly not because my name is associated with it – because I know that if we continue to do the right things for the right reasons, we can make this a better place.

Barbara Baxter Receives Well-Deserved Recognition

Barbara Baxter Receives Well-Deserved Recognition

It is not uncommon for me to explain to folks that if they wonder if God still works miracles, all they have to do is come to Mid-South Community College. Last week, we celebrated what I consider to be one of our most compelling examples: the legacy of Dr. Barbara Baxter and her two decades of remarkable contributions to this institution and the profound manner in which her work has touched untold lives.

Only a few of us can remember what Mid-South Community College was like in 1992, a mere two years before Dr. Baxter graced us with her presence. As I remember it, we had three small, Spartan-like buildings with little or no marketable programming. The situation was so dire, in fact, that the Department of Higher Education reached the conclusion that the institution was so ill resourced and facing so many challenges that the best course of action would be to close it.

So it certainly qualified as the last kind of place that you would expect to find someone of Dr. Barbara Baxter’s caliber. She came that first day, and despite all the rationale that was clearly evident for taking her little tail back across the bridge to Memphis, she stayed. And that, I think, is the beginning of a miracle.

As far as I’m concerned, her continued impact on this campus remains nothing short of miraculous. It is essentially impossible to do justice to the things that she is responsible for making happen. The list would be entirely too long and impossible for most of us to even comprehend. I challenge anyone to name a single thing of significance that has occurred on this campus over the past 20 years that Barbara has not played a significant role in creating, morphing, or evolving.

I remember vividly that we would never have been accredited the first time or the second time or the third time without her background, expertise, and investment in that process. The first time, there were only about three people on campus – and I was not one of the group – who could even spell accreditation.

I’m not going to tell you that it’s always been perfect. Having a detail-oriented, strong-willed perfectionist working with a president that, on occasion, likes to color outside of the lines, has made for some fairly interesting conversations. It’s safe to say that there have been occasions where Barbara’s books and my books didn’t balance to the penny. But I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for anything in the world.

I have never worked with anyone that I appreciated, respected, or loved more sincerely or known anyone more dedicated to helping people than Barbara Baxter. I can’t recall a detail too small or an issue too complex that she did not tackle with tenacity, vigor, and fervor.

Because it’s in her nature to shun the spotlight and praise others instead, Barbara would have preferred a much less public display of our appreciation, admiration, and affection. In good conscience, however, we could not allow her to retire on June 30 leave without a universally heart-felt “thank you” for her great contribution to this community, our state, our region, and even to the country.

No expression from us would be sufficient, but naming one of the focal points of our educational efforts the “Barbara C. Baxter Learning Success Center” helps us express our great fortune for having the blessing of her capacities and abilities for more than two decades. Through this permanent reminder, we acknowledge Dr. Barbara Baxter as an amazingly talented and dedicated professional who worked tirelessly to help our students and our institution succeed.


Career Pathways Study Will Reinforce What We Already Know

Career Pathways Study Will Reinforce What We Already Know

The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative has announced a comprehensive study that will evaluate the state’s nationally-recognized program which provides education and job training for low-income residents with children. Through careful analysis of more than 30,000 student records, the study, a joint project of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Annie E. Casey Foundation, will focus on CPI’s social and economic impact on our state.

Not surprisingly, at least to anyone even remotely familiar or associated with Career Pathways, the research effort is expected to provide clear empirical evidence that the program is decreasing the number of impoverished families while increasing postsecondary credential attainment and overall economic mobility and stability. It is also likely to show that CPI is helping to break the cycle of poverty and is providing a significant return on investment for participants, their families, and Arkansas as a whole.

Preliminary data clearly illustrates CPI’s positive impact on those who complete the program. More than 61 percent of recent completers earned one or more credentials and saw their wages jump an average of 37 percent after reaching their goals. Those statistics are overwhelmingly positive on their own, but when you factor in the life-changing impacts on the students and their families, the value soars exponentially.

The program sees high success rates because it removes common barriers to success by providing an all-inclusive support system with features such as transportation vouchers, child care, case management, career coaching, and tutoring options. While the vast majority of our students need financial aid to attend college, they also need more than just their basic monetary needs met. Support services are seminal for students who are trying to maintain the delicate balance between school, work, and family.

Even without the positive statistics, those of us intimately acquainted with the program know that the Career Pathways Initiative is one the best programs ever established in Arkansas. CPI empowers our citizens to earn credentials they need for a high-wage, high-skill jobs while giving them an attainable career path towards future opportunities and advancement in businesses and industries of regional importance.

Since the establishment of the Career Pathways Initiative at Mid-South Community College in 2006, we have served nearly 1,400 students. Program participants have earned 241 Employability Certificates, 21 General Education Development (GED®) certificates, 39 Certificates of Completion; 172 Certificates of Proficiencies, 8 Technical Certificates, 176 Associate Degrees, 65 Gold Career Readiness Certificates, 302 Silver CRCs, and 138 Bronze CRCs.

Despite the tremendous success of this initiative and the lives we’ve worked so hard to change, program funding has become a major stumbling block. CPI’s budget has been cut by almost a half since 2005, making it much more difficult for us and other training facilities to meet the full range of needs of our students. At MSCC, we’ve been forced to reduce our Career Pathways staff by almost two thirds because of funding shortfalls. All of us involved in the CPI effort are hoping the aforementioned study will open some eyes and underscore the value and importance of what the initiative is making happen.

While we use a lot of big words to describe the program and its impact on our state, we can probably get the point across much more simply. The Career Pathways Initiative offers hope and opportunity for people at the margins of educational and economic opportunity who are trying to transform their lives. I can’t imagine our state making a more wise or productive investment.

MSCC Hits Home Run with Sonja Tate Hire

MSCC Hits Home Run with Sonja Tate Hire

While the name of the game isn’t baseball, our hiring of Sonja Tate to lead the women’s basketball program prompted at least a couple of people to declare that we had “hit the ball out of the park.” Maybe they should have said we had swished a game-winning, three-pointer at the buzzer, but we all understand what they meant.

Knocking the ball out of the park is the ultimate accomplishment for a hitter, and we have essentially matched that feat by landing one of the rising stars in the coaching profession. Our institution thrives in large part because of divine intervention, and this latest cataclysmic event adds to the extensive list of miraculous occurrences that continue to shape our destiny.

When you have an opportunity to add people to your family, you certainly want to find the right ones. If you are dreaming of the right kind of person to fit in our model, you think first of someone who understands our community and our students and also understands and appreciates the opportunity to help build something bigger than just a basketball program. You want to find somebody who has come from the same places that our students have come from and has managed to become tremendously successful. You want to find somebody who can be a great role model.

When you find that person and manage to convince her to come to your institution and then hear people across the state and country exclaim “Wow!” that’s your best hope realized.

Sonja Tate fits every qualification we would have wanted to include in a job description. We’re ecstatic to have someone of her caliber engaged in what we’re trying to do, and we have every confidence that she will take our women’s basketball program to the next level.

What I have learned from this experience is you never can discount the cool things that God can make happen in ways that we can never imagine. When you have a guy like Andy Stoglin walk into your office and tell you that you can afford him as a basketball coach if that’s what it takes to start to a basketball program, I don’t have to be very smart to understand that mere mortals can’t engineer something like that.

Since 1992, a part of what I had dreamed for this community and our college was to have an athletic program. You can pray and hope for things, but they don’t always happen in your time frame. You have to let it happen when it’s supposed to happen. Obviously for more than 15 years we were trying to figure out how to build a college.

Now five years after Coach Stoglin walked into my office, we have a gym that we couldn’t have dreamed about earlier in our existence. Our men’s and women’s programs have already taken great steps forward, winning regional championships in a very short period of time while competing with schools that are much larger in terms of enrollment and that are much better financed than we are.

As I have said many times before, I still believe very strongly that this is something that is supposed to be happening because it gives so many people a chance to take their talents and parlay them into educational opportunities that can change the rest of their lives. That’s the type of program that we wanted to create, and that’s the type of program that we want to sustain.

SkillsUSA Students Invest Time, Energy to Compete

SkillsUSA Students Invest Time, Energy to Compete

Mid-South Community College’s top SkillsUSA students will travel to Hot Springs early next week to take on challengers from across Arkansas in the annual State Leadership and Skills Championship. We are sending about 50 of our best and brightest for a great experience, a great opportunity, and a chance to make us proud once again.

Our SkillsUSA chapter is less than a decade old but has already produced 146 gold, silver and bronze medals, an average of 18 per year. About the only competitions in which we haven’t finished in the top three are the ones we haven’t entered yet, and we’re working on those. It’s probably not practical to expect 18 medals every year, but we have almost come to expect such a massive haul based on the past performances of our students.

The young men and women who will represent themselves, their families, their college, and their high schools (in the case of MSCC Technical Center students) have been working exceptionally hard to prepare for the competition. It all started with an intra-campus contest to determine which students were best prepared for the state contest. Because the interest in SkillsUSA is so high on our campus, we have found it necessary to create an internal competition to determine who will take the next step. Most, if not all, of the state competitions limit the number of contestants, so we can’t send everyone, no matter how deserving they might be.

About 100 students showed up on a Saturday in February to demonstrate their skills. If you have school- or college-age children, you probably know how difficult it is to get them to do much of anything on a Saturday, especially something that is related to school. But our SkillsUSA participants are exceptionally dedicated to improving their technical competencies, so we’re not surprised by the great turnout and competition.

Particularly rewarding to our SkillsUSA sponsors and instructors (and all of us at the college) is the willingness of our students to pursue excellence outside of the classroom. Several of our young people are “competing up,” meaning they are participating in contests for which they haven’t even taken the classes that would prepare them. Instead, they have worked outside of class with their instructors for the opportunity to compete in the state contest.

While all of our instructors are proud of their students, we have one who is particularly invested. Martha Herron, director of Certified Nursing/Allied Health instructor at the college, speaks very highly of the young people and their instructors in the healthcare program.

“I am the very proud director of a very large Medical Professions program with some great students who have worked very hard,” she said during a heart-felt presentation announcing the contest participants. “This program and these students mean a lot to me,” she said while stopping briefly to compose herself. Martha apologized for her show of emotion, but no apology was necessary. Emotion is a vital part of the educational process, and we want our instructors to be passionate about their students.

Whether we win 1 medal or 31, we’re excited about the growth in our SkillsUSA program. Our students are learning character, leadership, and employability skills that will help them succeed, both on the job and in life. And shouldn’t that be the goal of our educational system?

Delayed Black History Event Worth the Wait

Delayed Black History Event Worth the Wait

Our 11th Annual Black History celebration didn’t go exactly as planned because of Old Man Winter, but when the weather finally cleared, we enjoyed a program that was well worth the wait.

Guest speaker Derwin Sisnett, a trail-blazing educator who worked at Mid-South Community College before tackling a major challenge in Memphis, provided an inspirational, motivational address about his early struggles and later successes.

Born in the rough Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., Sisnett painted a bleak picture of his childhood. He told us multiple times during his presentation that he was a statistical anomaly. “I’m not supposed to be here,” he said, noting that the odds were much greater he would end up in the grave or in a prison than as a guest speaker at a Black History event.

Many considered the middle school Sisnett attended one of the most violent in New York. While he didn’t elaborate, the speaker said he exited the eighth-grade in handcuffs, casting significant doubt on his future.

With the help of divine intervention, however, Sisnett made it to high school. He credits “the grace of God” for the opportunity to attend a high-performing public school. He buckled down in the classroom and finished a year early, mainly to get away from Far Rockaway.

Sisnett attended Atlanta’s Emory University where he was “pre-med, pre-law, pre-whatever,” before electing to pursue a passion for writing. After graduating with a psychology degree, Sisnett enrolled in grad school at Hollins University. He said he still had no idea where education would take him.

While at Hollins, Sisnett accepted an invitation to speak to a middle school class about writing. The experience changed his life. “I saw the eyes of middle school students who looked just like me when I was a middle school student.” He decided to become an educator.

After earning his master’s degree, Sisnett married a young woman he met at Emory, and they chose to live Memphis (her home town). He began looking for a teaching job but received zero response to his efforts.

At the time Mid-South Community College needed an adjunct faculty member with his credentials, and we had the good sense to hire him. Derwin impressed us so much with his dynamic, enthusiastic, student-focused approach that we soon hired him full time as a retention coordinator. He did a great job for us before another challenge presented itself.

While working on a Ph.D. in educational psychology, he received a call from a community development corporation which thought his research might be helpful in efforts to apply for a charter school. Sisnett agreed to share what he learned, and when the executive director job opened not too long after that, he decided to give it a try. He had no guarantee that the job would last beyond the application phase, “but I knew I wanted to serve more kids that looked like me, that came from environments like mine.” We certainly didn’t want to lose Derwin, but it’s tough to argue with someone so intent on helping as many people as possible.

The Power Center Academy received its charter and opened in 2008. Success came quickly, and Derwin soon found himself pursuing a goal of creating a “microcosm of a healthy community.” He and others made it a reality, and when approached by movers and shakers who wanted to replicate the success statewide, Derwin wanted to say no but couldn’t. He is now CEO of Gestalt Community Schools.

So the young man who seemed the least likely to succeed or even survive is now encouraging youngsters (and others as well) to dream big and change their lives through education. We need more people like Derwin Sisnett, and we’re proud that we had the opportunity to play a small part in his success.