Senior Summer Abram and junior Jeremy Paige know what they’re going to do when they graduate from the Academies at West Memphis: Use the skills they have learned to, in Summer’s case, immediately enter the workforce as a FedEx diesel mechanic while going to college, and, in Jeremy’s case, further his education and make a very good living as a FedEx aircraft mechanic.
The two students have these opportunities because of West Memphis’ unique arrangement with Arkansas State University Mid-South, a community college 1.3 miles from the school. Under a conversion charter granted by the state in 2014, the high school and the college are more than partners. In the eyes of the Arkansas Department of Education, they’ve effectively merged.
Out of 1,180 West Memphis students, 522 this fall travelled back and forth between the high school and the college to study career skills classes or college academic courses. The arrangement exposes students to higher education while they are still in high school, creating a seamless experience. In fact, because some of those classes start first thing in the morning, some sophomores have their first college experience before they’ve ever sat in a high school classroom.
For Abram and Paige, the arrangement offers an opportunity to earn a living immediately or soon after high school. Asked what interested her in becoming a diesel mechanic, Abram was blunt: “Money, honestly. And then I got in the program, and I liked it, so I continued to work with it.” A basketball point guard and shooting guard, she had intended to attend college on a basketball scholarship and study psychology, but a knee injury curtailed those plans. She still intends to be a psychologist, but now she’ll work her way through school while playing basketball at ASU Mid-South.
Paige, meanwhile, will earn his certification in airframe mechanics (the body of the aircraft) while still in high school and then continue his education in powerplant mechanics (the engine) after he graduates. In his senior year of high school, he’ll be able to practice on an actual Boeing 727 plane donated to Mid-South by FedEx. Once he’s earned both certifications, he can take his skills to FedEx and earn a six-figure salary working for a company with operations all over the world.
Paige said the opportunity to be a college student while still in high school adds another level of interest to his education – for him and for others. “I’ve got a couple of friends that take the computer engineering, who they’re not doing as good in school as they are in college,” he said. “They’re making straight A’s at college, but at school, it’s just like being in a different environment helps them.”
Pathways to a brighter future
A student’s journey through the Academies at West Memphis starts with a yearlong freshman seminar – a local credit but not a state one – that Superintendent Jon Collins calls “career orientation on steroids.” As ninth-graders, students spend one class a day learning about West Memphis’ three career academies: the Academy of Technology and Transportation; the Academy of Arts and Communications; and the Academy of Health and Human Services, the most popular of the three. Then they declare a pathway – or more than one – during their sophomore or junior years. Students still take their core academic courses, of course, but they also take electives based on their pathways from a menu of courses not unlike a college course catalog.
The pathways offer students a variety of opportunities. The Academy of Arts and Communications includes performing arts, communications, and visual arts. Its classes take place entirely on the high school campus. The Academy of Health & Human Services includes business administration and “protection service” – criminal justice and JROTC – on the West Memphis campus, and food service management and medical profession courses at ASU Mid-South. The Academy of Technology & Transportation includes a variety of skill sets. Students take classes in construction technology and automotive services on the West Memphis campus. On the ASU Mid-South campus, they take courses in agriculture/natural resources, computer engineering, diesel technology, aviation mechanics, machining, welding, and mechatronics, which involves various mechanical and electrical engineering skills.
Some students earn a certificate as they earn their high school diploma. For example, West Memphis has had a 100 percent pass rate on the welding exam. Lead welding instructor Ed Cook said that, last May, five high school students received their certifications and then went to work at TrinityRail Maintenance Services in Jonesboro making $17.58 an hour. Two have been promoted to more than $18 an hour.
“Kids are leaving high school and going into the workforce and making $17-$18 an hour,” Collins said, “and depending on where they’re at, some of them try to re-engage in college programs like this to add to that skill, and some of them look at you like, ‘What’s the need? I’m already making a pretty good wage.’”
The school day is divided into eight periods so students can be bussed to the college, a trip that takes only eight minutes, and spend two straight periods there taking college classes. In fact, students can spend up to six periods a day at the college. As with other college courses, some classes meet five days a week for four credit hours, and some meet three days a week for three credit hours.
Career coaches float back and forth between the two campuses and help students with their soft skills and mission. According to Dr. Glen Fenter, who was ASU Mid-South’s chancellor when the program was created, “We knew that these students needed much more counseling, advising, hugging, loving, hand-holding, if we’re going to put them in an environment that encourages a different level of academic achievement than maybe they had been in before.”
Finding the money for that support has been a challenge. The Academies at West Memphis has five career coaches, but part of that is funded by a year-to-year Walton Family Foundation grant. Money isn’t really available at the community college level either. Fenter said both institutions have had to be creative.
“You just rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said.
Students can take college prep courses on the ASU Mid-South campus without paying tuition or fees thanks to the Thomas Goldsby Scholarship, which was created in 2001 by a gift by local oilman Goldsby. The scholarship – which was used by 56 of the 57 students taking college prep courses – is available to all students of Crittenden County schools, including Marion and Earle. Students can earn an associate’s degree while they are still in high school, though to make their schedules work, they’ll probably have to forego extracurricular activities such as athletics, band and choir. Because of agreements made by ASU Mid-South with four-year schools, it’s possible for a student to earn a college degree in numerous majors, or even a master’s, without ever leaving West Memphis.
Career-oriented classes are funded through a pass-through funding model that the Department of Career Education provides all schools. Instead of offering those particular courses, the high school reimburses ASU Mid-South.
How the charter began
Making it all possible is the district’s conversion charter, the only one of its kind where a district is paired with a local community college. The charter waives seat time requirements and allows students to take classes in evenings. The state granted the district $660,000, while the Walton Family Foundation chipped in a quarter of a million dollars.
The process for creating the district started in the mid-2000s, when Crittenden County twice was in the running for a huge Toyota auto manufacturing plant but lost both times – to Blue Springs, Mississippi, and San Antonio. Meanwhile, Collins, then the high school principal, had an experience on graduation night where a young student wept when she received her diploma. It turned out that she was the first member of her family to graduate. Afterwards, he challenged his counselors by asking them what the district was providing its students.
Collins noted that the district graduates about 330 per year. Twenty-eight percent of them will go to college. Another 3 percent will enlist in the military. Less then 1 percent will transition straight into a family-run business. Then there’s everybody else.
“What we’re trying to do with this whole model is really add value to the high school diploma,” he said during a presentation to a visiting delegation from Harrisburg Feb. 18. “Make those students a lot more employable so folks like you all at your businesses will say, ‘Hey, I’m going to hire that person,’ because at the end of the day they want to make more money.”
A conversation began between West Memphis and the previous Mid-South administration led by Dr. Fenter, a former high school principal. Both boards of directors were involved, as was the community, including the mayor’s office, city government, parents and students. Tours of Mid-South were given for eighth- and ninth-grade students and for high school teachers, some of whom had never been on the campus.
For years, the college has hosted a monthly Mid-South Business and Industry Council meeting where an industry representative has spoken about their employees’ skill sets and the current and projected labor shortage. The school district collected labor information and worked with the state Department of Career Education to determine which pathways would best help students succeed. One obvious opportunity was in diesel mechanics. West Memphis is located at the crossing of two major interstates, I-55 and I-40, and the region includes the headquarters of several major national trucking companies.
“We’re not putting kids out there to work on black-and-white TVs and Weed Eaters,” Collins said. “There’s not a demand for that. So when you talk about high-skill, high-wage, high-demand, we’re trying to link our kids into programs through this conversion charter partnership with ASU Mid-South with specifically programs that are going to lead to employable skills at the end of the road.”
Working with FedEx
The relationship with FedEx, located just across the river in Memphis, was a natural. The multinational company is always in search of qualified workers, and its founder, Fred Smith, has been outspoken in saying that public schools should focus on producing employable graduates. Fenter said the college reached out to the company several years ago because it was aware of the company’s need for trained airframe and powerplant mechanics. A program was developed over a period of years. In 2012, FedEx donated a Boeing 727 plane, which had to be dismantled by a Stuttgart company and transported to the campus. When the number of students outgrew the facility, FedEx made an investment of $250,000 in a new 22,000-square-foot facility, the FedEx Aviation Technology Center, which when completed this year will include aircraft hangar space and classrooms.
The college had to be flexible to make it work, said ASU Mid-South Associate Vice President Pete Selden. It had to educate its own faculty about what the change would mean. Classes had to be added, and full-time instructors and adjuncts had to be hired for not high salaries. Most instructors have come from industry and didn’t have classroom management skills. Space had to be found, and classrooms turned into labs. Classes previously created alongside the Arkansas Department of Higher Education had to be aligned with the Arkansas Department of Education’s frameworks. The college had to make accommodations for students with disabilities and those with an individualized education program. Afternoon classes had to be changed to 1:15 p.m. so high school students didn’t have to choke down lunch on the bus. Because the Goldsby scholarship only covers so much of the costs, the college has been footing some of the other expenses on the college prep side – up to $200,000 a year this past fall.
A key to the effort’s success has been the cooperative spirit between the institutions, which had already been nurtured by the experiences the two have had with the Goldsby Scholarship. The two institutions hold joint Friday sessions and offer shared workshops for teachers and instructors. They also coordinate in tracking attendance to ensure students are attending classes in both locations.
Collins said the cooperative spirit comes in part from a shared commitment to their community.
“Our doors are open for them pretty much 24 hours a day, and they welcomed us 24 hours a day, so it’s been a really good partnership,” he said. “And unlike a lot of my colleagues, our partnership has been smooth. I would say it’s been a lot smoother than a lot of other places, and I think that’s just through communication. I think it’s through necessity. I think it’s through just our geographical area and a need to understand that in order for northeast Arkansas and the Delta to stay alive and survive and to continue to thrive, I go back to, you’ve got to be all singing from the same hymnal.”
Yes, the faculty had concerns, Collins said. It was difficult for some high school teachers to accept that their students might arrive a few minutes late to English class because they were at ASU Mid-South. Some lost their best students to a college campus. To help teachers understand the mission, the district hired substitutes and, over a three-day period, brought them to the college so they could see what their students would be doing.
Both the school and the college have been generous with their time. On the day Report Card visited, a large contingent from the Harrisburg School District and the Harrisburg community were there as well. School board member Fonda Eaton was impressed.
“It’s very inspiring after looking at it today and the information that we received,” she said. “I think it looks like a viable prospect. We don’t have the closeness of the facility like they do here just being down the road, but (Harrisburg being) 15 minutes away from ASU, I think it could work. … As a board, you always have to be kind of looking toward the future a little bit, and I think that’s kind of where it’s going. I think you have to be open to that prospect.”
Collins acknowledges that the West Memphis School District has advantages not available to others. What about schools that aren’t located so close to a community college? Collins said they should see what they can offer on their campus and partner with local industries to meet local economic needs. Because he said these programs are “not cheap to install and they’re not cheap to sustain,” school districts should try to obtain as many grants and as much state funding as possible by working with the Arkansas Department of Education and the Department of Career Education.
Ultimately, it’s worth the effort, said both Collins and Fenter, who now leads the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce. Too often, he said, the educational system is designed to serve old educational strategies rather than students. Meanwhile, college degrees remain out of reach for many students who, even if they receive a full scholarship, lack the resources to complete college, such as a car, money for food and clothes, and other supports.
The good news, he said, is that the right packaging of educational technology can change a student’s life quickly and dramatically, perhaps like never before.
“The most powerful model for combatting the lingering vestiges of poverty in this country is to speed up the educational process, particularly for poor students,” he said. Fenter later added, “That doesn’t mean they have to stay in that job. It just means that that job can be a stepping stone to a career or a stepping stone to further education. They’re not limited to no future when they come out, which is basically what they have now.”
For Collins, the Academies of West Memphis serves both his students – the ones like the young lady weeping because she was the first in her family to graduate – and his community, which twice missed out on a Toyota plant that would have provided thousands of jobs. Because of its educational model, students like Summer Abram and Jeremy Paige won’t have to wonder how they’ll find a job. Jobs will be waiting, and they’ll have the skills to fill them.