Southwestern Group Faculty: Aspen Prize semifinalist


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  • “That you must take the school to the neighborhood and the neighborhood to the school,” stated @southwesterncc President Don Tomas. Southwestern is certainly one of 40 N.C. neighborhood faculties serving a rural county and was not too long ago named a semifinalist for the Aspen Prize.
  • @southwesterncc has been chosen as a semifinalist for the Aspen Prize. Learn how the school is enhancing scholar entry, assembly the wants of their neighborhood, and serving rural residents.

Southwestern Group Faculty is amongst 25 semifinalists within the working for the 2023 $1 million Aspen Prize for Group Faculty Excellence. The prize is the “nation’s signature recognition for America’s neighborhood faculties” and is awarded each two years.

From over 1,000 U.S. neighborhood faculties, 150 establishments are chosen to use primarily based on a mannequin that makes use of nationwide information measuring “institutional efficiency, enchancment, and fairness in scholar retention and completion.” Of the 58 neighborhood faculties in North Carolina, six have been invited to use: Catawba Valley, Faculty of the Albemarle, Edgecombe, Montgomery, Southwestern, and Wayne. 

The 150 establishments are then narrowed to 25 semifinalists – a newly added milestone for the reason that launch of the Aspen Prize in 2010. Aspen added the 25 semifinalists as a technique to spotlight the work of extra faculties so others can be taught from them.

From the 25, 10 finalist establishments are chosen for additional assessment and a two-day website go to earlier than asserting one winner. 

“I’m getting goosebumps enthusiastic about it,” Dr. Don Tomas, president of Southwestern, stated about being a semifinalist.

Being requested to use for the Aspen Prize factors to what Tomas says is proof that Southwestern Group Faculty is doing job.

“You’re assembly the wants of your neighborhood, your college students,” Tomas stated. “You’re getting them within the system and thru the system. You’re assembly the workforce training calls for.”

The school can also be seeing continued success with partaking extra minority college students who then go on to finish a credential – a reality significantly vital on condition that the school is located within the southern Appalachian area, the place nearly all of the inhabitants is white. 

The key sauce to serving college students higher

For those who ask neighborhood school leaders the key sauce wanted to enhance retention, completion, and institutional efficiency, chances are you’ll hear the phrase ‘it’s not only one factor.’

As Tomas stated, the mannequin to raised serve college students is multifaceted – from utilizing information to search for alternatives for enchancment to rising partnerships to early engagement. However earlier than fashions and initiatives can take root, there’s a piece to the equation that’s crucial for neighborhood faculties – and that’s understanding the scholars and the neighborhood the establishment serves.

What does understanding seem like?

In line with Tomas, it’s about being embedded within the tradition. 

Census information solely paints a small image. To know a neighborhood is to have the ability to discern the tradition of the neighborhood – studying residents’ methods of life, their beliefs, and what they worth. And whereas it’s vital for leaders at each establishment to know the tradition of the neighborhood they’re making an attempt to succeed in, it’s very true for neighborhood faculties serving rural areas. 

Courtesy of Southwestern Group Faculty

Rural communities are significantly particular in that most of the residents who reside there have been additionally born there, as have been the generations earlier than them. Some take into account this an asset as a result of it creates deep roots among the many folks. However it may be difficult for these shifting into such a linked and culturally-rich neighborhood.

Tomas, who moved from Texas to Western North Carolina nearly 12 years in the past, stated as president of a rural-serving establishment, it’s important to be intentional, construct belief, and “grow to be a part of the material and tradition of the neighborhood.”

And shifting from one rural space to a different doesn’t assure you’ll perceive the tradition, as a result of every neighborhood is exclusive – full of its personal tales and folks. 

Serving rural residents

The N.C. Rural Middle considers 78 of the 100 counties in North Carolina rural. Which means 40 of the state’s 58 neighborhood faculties serve at the very least one rural county, based on the North Carolina Group Faculty System (NCCCS).

Though challenges on the trail to increased training exist in each neighborhood, these challenges are sometimes better in rural areas. To a big extent, these communities are poorer, underserved, and have decrease school completion charges in comparison with city areas.

Many rural-serving neighborhood faculties are the first supplier of important assets, resembling web entry and meals banks. And as neighborhood hubs, they expertise distinctive challenges and alternatives as they search to extend attainment and shut the financial prosperity hole.

Southwestern Group Faculty serves three rural counties: Macon, Jackson, and Swain. Collectively, the three counties have a inhabitants that totals simply over 94,000.

Tomas is conscious of the challenges skilled by rural-serving neighborhood faculties – lack of assets being chief amongst them. And whereas he doesn’t wish to diminish the work of all 58 neighborhood faculties, Tomas stated rural neighborhood faculties are sometimes distinctive within the methods they meet these challenges head-on due to how ingrained and embedded school leaders are inside the tradition of their neighborhood. 

“It provides you a deep immersion right into a stronger understanding of the potential wants,” Tomas stated. “You’re concerned with civic organizations, chambers, and financial improvement boards… All people is aware of you, and also you get to know everyone.”

Earlier this yr, the Belk Middle for Group Faculty Management and Analysis, in collaboration with Attaining the Dream, launched an initiative to assist rural-serving establishments deal with the challenges they face and capitalize on alternatives. The Rural Faculty Leaders Program (RCLP) is an immersive studying neighborhood with 10 North Carolina neighborhood faculties that serve at the very least one rural county.

“Elevating and supporting our rural-serving establishments is a step towards guaranteeing that every one North Carolinians have equitable entry to postsecondary attainment,” Dr. Audrey J. Jaeger, government director for the Belk Middle, stated. “By the Rural Faculty Leaders Program, we’re supporting faculties of their efforts to enhance scholar success that results in better social and financial mobility in our state’s areas.”

Tomas agrees that creating early entry for the neighborhood is essential. However Southwestern is aware of it can’t at all times depend on residents to show-up on campus.

“That you must take the school to the neighborhood and the neighborhood to the school.”

Dr. Don Tomas, president of Southwestern Group Faculty

How Southwestern continues to enhance entry, scholar success, and fairness

As Tomas beforehand acknowledged, nobody mannequin or system could be answerable for assembly the wants of scholars. A kind of approaches Southwestern makes use of is an early connection system.

Leveraging public college partnerships, Southwestern engages with college students as early as sixth grade. The school connects with college students by means of New Century Students, a program that “supplies school preparation abilities and last-dollar school tuition to chose college students in Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties.” 

By the school’s Skilled Exploration And Data (PEAK) Explorers program, college students are launched to career-connection actions that generate dialogue and assist them make knowledgeable selections about their increased training selections beginning in sixth grade. 

Moreover, the school affords Profession and Faculty Promise, a dual-enrollment program that permits highschool college students the chance to earn free school credit score. Southwestern supplies college students involved in dual-enrollment a pathways chart that maps each their highschool and school completion in six years or much less.

Tomas stated these early alternatives for connection are vital for college kids who could not in any other case interact with the school as a result of they’re first-generation or have social and financial limitations that restrict entry.

After a scholar is enrolled at Southwestern, they’ll be launched to an Appreciative Advising strategy, a collaborative effort between advisor and scholar. Advisors use open-ended questions to assist college students visualize their objectives. The Appreciative Advising strategy is centered across the six phases proven beneath.

Picture obtained from Southwestern Group Faculty’s web site.

Poverty charges and the variety of first-generation school college students are better in Southwestern’s service areas in comparison with the state’s common. The school is leveraging assets to make sure postsecondary attainment, together with early faculties, scholarships, GEAR UP, and Upward Sure.

As soon as enrolled, Southwestern supplies scholar help providers, certainly one of which incorporates Male Success Teaching. It’s an vital initiative within the wake of COVID-19, when enrollment amongst males fell 14.7% nationally from fall 2019 to fall 2020 at public two-year establishments.

Regardless of serving a largely white inhabitants, Tomas stated the share of minority curriculum college students enrolled at Southwestern is larger than the minority inhabitants of the school’s service areas. Tomas went on to say that the Hispanic inhabitants makes-up round 7.5% of the full inhabitants of Southwestern’s service areas, however Hispanic scholar enrollment on the school is over 9%.

Past creating early entry alternatives and fascinating minority college students, the school collaborates with space employers to ship workforce options to the local people. Southwestern coordinated with the native on line casino to create a Seller Coaching program, getting ready over 2,000 college students.

When labor market information indicated gaps between employment alternatives and preparedness, Southwestern took motion – including two new well being sciences packages to satisfy native wants.

In fall 2021, Southwestern opened its new Well being Sciences Middle. The middle spans over 55,000 sq. toes and homes lecture rooms and coaching for 10 of the school’s 16 well being care profession fields.

The ten finalists for the Aspen Prize for Group Faculty Excellence shall be introduced in early June 2022.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a coverage analyst for EducationNC.





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