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Ignite Davie: How Davidson-Davie Community College is firing up opportunities for high school graduates

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In fall 2018, Darrin Hartness, then freshly named president of Davidson-Davie Community College (DDCC), was talking with a local businessman. They were both struck by a challenge in Davie County: A large number of students graduating from high school didn’t have plans for what to do next. 

So, they started dreaming up a plan to answer one big question:

“What would it look like for us to have a program to ensure that every student that graduated from high school in this community — whether it’s public high school or home school — would not have to worry about tuition and fees and would have a book stipend to go to college?” Hartness said. 

In assembling the team to tackle that question, one of the first calls was to Jane Simpson, CEO of the Davie Community Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to encourage philanthropy to invest in Davie County. With the foundation on board, Hartness knew community support would follow. 

“… These (partners) are all people that have instant credibility in the community,” Hartness said. “When they see an idea like that, and embrace it and say, ‘Yeah this is going to have an impact,’ and then they’re ambassadors to their contacts in the community.”

They also enlisted Carolyn McManamy, director of DavieCONNECT, a workforce initiative that’s part of the Davie County Economic Development Commission. 

“Everybody knows everybody, and we are so accustomed to working together,” McManamy said. “The way this community works together, we’re just blessed.” 

Along with other community partners — including Davie County, Davie County High School, the local chamber of commerce, and the United Way — the team launched Ignite Davie, a community-focused college promise program that covers tuition and fees and provides a textbook stipend for students from Davie County to attend DDCC full time.

Any high school graduate, so long as they live in and attend high school in Davie County, can participate in the program. Once the student is part of Ignite Davie, they’re required to stay in good academic standing (minimum 2.0 GPA) and volunteer locally for five hours each semester. The program application is here.

McManamy, who primarily administers Ignite Davie, views it as a critical piece of developing the local workforce and economy. 

“That postsecondary education opportunity in your own hometown, with employment opportunities as well, is a natural way to develop and educate your own next generation of workforce,” she said. “It’s investing in our own community and trying to keep them part of our community.” 

According to a recent economic impact report, this type of community-focused thinking has been an asset to the local economy. For both DDCC students who relocated and students who were already local, the report says their expenditures added $3.1 million to the counties’ economy in 2019-20. On top of that, the report found that “the net impact of DDCC’s former students currently employed in the regional workforce amounted to $104.7 million in added income in 2019-20.”

Because students participating in Ignite Davie aren’t taking on major debt for the first two years of their college experience, she also views it as an opportunity to help tackle student debt and its ripple affects on the local economy.

“Students that are swimming in student debt are not going to be able to participate in the actual local economy living here in the same way as those who don’t have debt,” she said.

Ashley O’Donnell, Davie County’s coordinator for high school partnerships for DDCC, agrees.

“This opportunity, while it helps them financially, it opens up a lot of opportunities that they kind of had closed off to begin with, because they didn’t know how to navigate that system because they were so worried about money,” she said.

Despite launching in fall 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, Ignite Davie has seen success. Twenty-one students have graduated so far, and 160 are currently in the program. 

“For Ignite Davie students, when you compare them to the general population, they have higher retention rates, they have higher GPAs. So we know that they’re being more successful than our typical student,” said Susan Burleson, executive vice president for academic and student affairs at DDCC. 

And, nearly all of the program’s donors are from Davie County. 

“It’s definitely been embraced by the community and supported by the community,” said Simpson. 

For the team behind the effort, the hope is that it will continue to grow and become embedded in the Davie County community.

“Getting that out in the community — that it is a possibility for every high school graduate in Davie County — so they hear it everywhere,” said Sandra Porter, director of student services for the Davie County campus of DDCC. “There’s so many people now in Davie County who are considering the community college, so I think it opens up great opportunity for all students in this county.”

Dean Drescher

Dean Drescher is the director of strategic initiatives for EducationNC.