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Community colleges are the ‘workforce engines’ of our state and our future

#Awake58: EdNC’s blitz of North Carolina’s community colleges begins today with Halifax Community College!

Stories anchor our work at EducationNC. I grew up on stories about the importance of our community colleges. My grandfather, Lloyd Rash, was on the Board of Trustees at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. He told me stories of Dallas Herring, chair of the North Carolina State Board of Education for 20 years, and Governor Terry Sanford plotting the locations of the community colleges on a North Carolina map on the floor of the Governor’s mansion. And you wonder how I ended up a wonk!

I attended Central Piedmont Community College while I was in high school at East Mecklenburg in Charlotte, and all of my credits transferred to the University of Virginia. And then, around the same time the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research wrapped up our study of community colleges in 2008, my brother, Jim Rash, went on to star as Dean Pelton in the hit sitcom, Community. 

In 1964, Herring said, “We must take the people where they are and carry them as far as they can go.” This ideal became the foundation of our community college system’s open door philosophy, a philosophy that presents an opportunity in the 21st century’s “world economy where increasingly what you earn is based on what you learn.”1

In 2008, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research conducted an in-depth study of the future of community college in North Carolina. The key issues facing the system then included changing enrollment trends, faculty compensation, funding, and strategic planning in a system with high local autonomy. As we worked on the study, the one thing of which I was sure was that the state of North Carolina — from people in communities to policymakers on Jones Street — “often failed to grasp the scope, complexity, and importance of our state’s community colleges.”2 

Our community colleges are the “workforce engines” of our communities, our state, our nation, and our future. EducationNC’s blitz is an opportunity for us and for you to get to know them better — from where they are to who they serve to their leaders and the role they play in community and economic development across our state.

Do you know how many community colleges we have across the state? 58

Who is the president of the N.C. Community College System? Peter Hans

In real time, you can follow along with EdNC’s blitz on Twitter @Awake58NC and Instagram @Awake58 or using the hashtag #Awake58. You can also text AWAKE to 73224 and follow along with us there. Make sure to sign up for our new weekly newsletter, Awake58, curated by EdNC’s Nation Hahn.

I will be at Isothermal Community College in Spindale today, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury with @ncLEAFchief Dan Gerlach on Tuesday, and South Piedmont Community College in Monroe on Wednesday. I’ll be with Rob Boisvert on Spectrum News and then live tweeting Peter Hans on Carolina Business Review on Thursday. I’ll be at Montgomery Community College in Troy on Friday. Each day during the blitz you can see where all of Team EdNC will be in our daily digest.

Thank you for joining us as we expand EdNC’s conversation to cover birth to career, and please join our architecture of participation for our students, our state, and our future. Hold on. Here we go…


Meet President Elam and Halifax Community College

Halifax County

Halifax Community College is located in Weldon, and in 2017 it celebrated its 50th anniversary. Dr. Michael Elam is the president, and he writes, “Halifax Community College is a hub of scholastic innovation, changing the lives of residents throughout the Roanoke Valley. As an institution we are committed to excellence in education, as well as dedicated to fostering a love of learning and a drive for great success in all of our students.” The phrase ‘learning comes to life in pursuit of excellence’ is the phrase you see and hear over and over again everywhere on campus.

Community colleges play important roles all along the birth to career continuum

One of the reasons I wanted to start EdNC’s blitz at Halifax Community College is because we are studying the birth to eight experience and kindergarten readiness in eastern North Carolina, with in-depth research in Halifax, Nash, and Edgecombe counties. Halifax Community College offers an early childhood education program, and we wanted to know more.

We are committed to improving the lives of all children in the Roanoke Valley through early childhood teacher preparation, which includes theory and research based practices, reflection, building relationships, opportunities for advocacy, and promoting life-long learning. — Mission Statement of the Early Childhood Education Program

Dr. Elam and I visited an early childhood class, and we interviewed two students. Takalia Edwards hopes to earn her degree in early childcare, work in a day care, and then become a teacher with the dream of one day owning her own day care center. Dr. Elam smiled, noting, “We instill entrepreneurial thinking in students. We help them understand they can create jobs for themselves and jobs for the community.”

Tim Sinclair teaches the class. His own stormy childhood led him to this opportunity “to give back to the community by teaching them with all my heart…I can teach them they can go out and make a difference in the world.”

After student presentations on Piaget and Maslow, Dr. Elam delivered an impromptu lecture on aesthetics and why aesthetics matter in educational settings, engaging the students and making sure they understood the concept and its importance.

There is a five-star rated child care center on campus, the only NEAYC accredited program in Halifax County. In partnership with N.C. State University, an outdoor learning center of demonstration and excellence is being built to combat obesity and engage children in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) earlier on. Eunice Hill, the outgoing director, gave us a tour.

The impact of Halifax Community College on the birth to career continuum continues with an important role in providing early college experiences to students in this region. This is an area for the community college where enrollment is growing — from 6.6 percent of total enrollment in 2013 to 33 percent in 2017. Eventually, four early colleges will be served by this campus, including Roanoke Valley Early College, which we visited, Northampton County Early College, Roanoke Rapids Early College, and coming soon Halifax County Early College. Dr. Elam says, “Parents and grandparents are interested in giving kids a step up, especially in rural areas.” 

In this class at Roanoke Valley Early College, Angelia Laudermilch is teaching juniors and seniors chemistry. We all joined in to learn about phase diagrams and heating curves.

Community colleges are known for their capacity to create customized industry training programs, and Halifax Community College has created a training program for the future workers on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. This 40 hour program will provide training for pipeline technicians on all facets of pipeline construction, including trenching, excavation, safety, rigging, erosion control, communications, and teamwork. Twenty students per month will be selected for the course, and 200 workers in total will be trained over 10 months. The workers will earn $19.00 per hour plus $45.00 per day for expenses. These are really good jobs in this region, but to create them our community colleges have to be nimble enough to have a training program like this ready to go — and nimble enough to keep the program on hold until construction begins.

This diagram explains the construction sequence of the pipeline.

“Pipeline construction is very similar to a moving assembly line, with specialized teams performing each step in the process. Once each team completes the task, another team moves in to complete the next phase. The entire process is closely monitored by more than 1,300 environmental and safety inspectors, in addition to state and federal agencies.”

Here is a map of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Leadership matters

You can tell a lot about leaders by how they interact with students and faculty, how they participate in a classroom, and how they talk about their community and the future. In the photos above of Dr. Elam as he walked around Halifax Community College with me, you can see he is engaged.

“Community colleges are the workforce engines for the country,” Dr. Elam tells me. He shared with me a story about GIs coming home from the military after World War II with tremendous skill sets, but skill sets that didn’t necessarily translate into civilian life. Community colleges, he says, filled the gap.

Dr. Elam grew up in Henderson, but he was raised in Philadelphia. He served as president of College of the Mainland in Texas, president of Roanoke-Chowan Community College for three years, and he has been at Halifax Community College for 20 months.

In this video, Dr. Elam talks with me about what keeps him up at night. He worries about sustainability because where else, he asks, would students go for workforce training, retooling, and the social and economic skills to be successful in life?

Focused on equity and education, Dr. Elam created the Bridge Awards as a way to lift up and honor individuals whose work transcends race, brings people together, and unifies the community.

“I get to serve our community,” concludes Dr. Elam and our visit to Halifax Community College. 

“That’s what I do, that’s why I do.” 

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Scott Ralls, Facing Brutal Facts, N.C. Insight, May 2008, p. 10.
  2. John Quinterno, “Key Issues Facing the N.C. Community College System, N.C. Insight, May 2008, p. 220.
Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.