They held an education summit in Nashville on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it turned into a jobs summit.
And that’s pretty much what organizers of the event had in mind all along.
The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, the organization founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, hosted the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University, pulling together various interests in education — from the classroom to the philanthropic realm. It was notable for its emphasis on rural areas, where issues ranging from education to unemployment can be difficult and complex
But it was clear the event was not simply about educating kids in rural communities. It was about preparing them for the workforce and, in turn, boosting the economy in those rural areas.
“It’s making real this close connection between education and jobs,” said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator and president of SCORE.
“They’re so interrelated. It’s not just something we talk about theoretically. It really is a matter of economic viability for these communities around our state and the families that support those communities.”
To drive home that point, the event had a high-powered panel discussion Tuesday morning that included Kevin Huffman, the state’s commissioner of education, and Bill Hagerty, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development, along with Frist and Woodson. Huffman said the jobs of the future will be different from jobs in the past. Hagerty said the connection between jobs and education is very tight.
But the same angle was evident in a morning panel discussion Wednesday. Joe Barker, executive director of the Southwest Tennessee Development District, drove home the point of workforce development and in the process referred to a megasite in West Tennessee aimed at economic development.
Barker also referred to the REDI College Access Program. REDI stands for Regional Economic Development Initiative.
“The key part of this is to recognize we’re an economic development organization. We’re not an educational entity,” Barker said.
“We got involved in the College Access Program purely from an economic development sense.”
He spelled out some details of the large tract of land set aside as the Haywood County Megasite.
“It is a large, potentially very attractive industrial site for heavy manufacturing. It is the only certified megasite left in the state of Tennessee,” Barker said.
“Leaders came together to talk about what we could do as a region to enhance attracting jobs to that megasite, and at the end of the day it all went back to the quality of our workforce and our educational attainment levels.”
John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the largest higher education organization in the state, zeroed in on the high number of students who require some type of remedial education when they enter the state’s colleges. He focused on the community colleges in the Board of Regents system since they will be the institutions dealing most with remedial education.
“Roughly four out of five freshmen who come to our community colleges require some kind of remedial or developmental education,” Morgan said. “Of those, about three out of four will have math deficiencies.
“That’s kind of the big problem. But even when you look at reading, about one-third end up in developmental or remedial reading courses, and about half end up in writing courses. That’s troubling.”
Morgan pointed to the state’s Complete College Act, which is geared toward moving students more seamlessly toward college degrees.
“In an environment where completion is now the agenda, where our schools are incented in a very strong way through our outcome-based formula to focus on completion, obviously that represents a substantial challenge,” Morgan said.
Morgan said no matter how well Tennessee handles remedial education, real success will come only when students arrive at college prepared to learn.
“We can cry about that. We can whine about the lack of preparation if we choose to,” Morgan said. “But that’s not going to help us hit our numbers. It’s not going to help us achieve our outcomes.
“So what we have to do is figure out how we at our institutions can work with our high schools, with our middle schools, with our communities to lead to better success for students as they come to us.”
Morgan said there will always be a need for remedial and developmental courses for adult learners, pointing out that if he were to go back to college he would probably “test in” to needing some kind of help.
But the summit was still somewhat out of the ordinary for its focus on rural communities.
“There is a great deal of focus and data related to urban turnaround strategies,” Woodson said. “But we wanted to look at rural communities — and a third of Tennessee students are in schools in rural communities — which is particularly important. So we thought it would be smart and productive to focus on that.”
David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, echoed that desire.
“A lot of the education reform going on nationally is focused on urban areas,” he said. “In talking to folks and learning from people across the state, there was a real need, not only convening about rural education but to talk about best practices, then bring folks together to replicate those practices.”
Woodson said the idea for the rural summit came from listening tours SCORE has conducted across the state, adding that those efforts will continue.
“This really resulted from those conversations,” she said.