Connecting to communities: MSU’s Stennis Institute assists schools

From press reports

Education is the key to economic development. Industries need problem-
solvers: educated, trainable workers who can go above and beyond
classroom instruction.

Strategic planner Phil Hardwick has seen it time and again in his
work as a project manager with Mississippi State University’s John C.
Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development. Over the
past three years, he’s worked with 13 Northeast Mississippi schools
to increase the numbers of students admitted to college.

Hardwick is showing school leaders how to connect students’
coursework to future employment, how to create a college-attendance
culture, and how to unite schools with community organizations,
especially local businesses.

While this work was funded through the Appalachian Regional
Commission’s Appalachian Higher Education Network grant, Hardwick
emphasized that the Stennis Institute offers planning sessions to
school systems that ask for them.

“This is the whole purpose of Mississippi State — we’re a land-grant
institution, and we’re out there improving our communities,” he said.
“If a school district wanted someone to facilitate a goal-setting
session, we’ll provide that service and show them how.”

Starkville School District recently had its first of four planning
sessions, and with the kinds of results Hardwick’s seen in the
districts that received the ARC grant, he expects many more districts
across the state will soon request these services.

“It’s been a very successful project,” Hardwick said. “What we’ve
learned is, a lot of schools are isolated from the community and a
lot of the businesses don’t have interaction with the schools, so
consequently, there’s this gap. Once they get connected, the results
are pretty impressive.”
Stennis’s work with Louisville High School in Winston County has been
just one model example, he said.

Louisville Municipal School District, Winston County Economic
Development District, East Central Community College, the Winston
County Journal and local government officials united to develop the
“Getcha Head in the Game” initiative to encourage students to stay in
school and enroll in postsecondary institutions following graduation.

Students began participating in intensive tutoring, ACT-preparation
workshops and college visits. Art students created postsecondary
posters to hang in the schools’ hallways. Taylor Machine Works began
supplying materials to the metal fabrication lab.

In 2009, only 44 percent of Louisville High School graduates
continued their education at the next level, but just two years
later, 84 percent went on to postsecondary education or training. The
success garnered Gov. Phil Bryant’s attention; Louisville’s
collaborative team received the 2012 Governor’s Award for community
partnerships at the high school level.

Hardwick explained that the increase of students enrolling in
postsecondary training reflects a change of culture at Louisville
High School.
“The more you get exposed to, the higher your ambitions become. It’s
about raising the ambition level. These students start out only
seeing the horizon, but they’re getting there and seeing that they
can be more,” he said.

Metal fabrication teacher Shane McDaniel said Taylor Machine Works’
contributions of equipment and materials are making a real difference
in students’ lives.

“It costs so much to operate a program like this; there’s a great
cost just to train a welder, but we’re doing it at less cost because
of Taylor. It’s benefitting these kids to do a two-year certificate
and not have to pay one cent. Then they have that out of high
school,” McDaniel said.

His students are winning SkillsUSA competitions, where teens
demonstrate both occupational and leadership skills, he said.
District winners have gone on to place in the top three in the state,
and their pictures hang in the metal fabrication workshop to inspire
other students to achieve at high levels.

After high school, many of McDaniel’s students continue their studies
at MSU or East Central Community College, the two postsecondary
institutions that seniors visit before graduation, he said.

The achievement at Louisville is just one example of success for
schools taking advantage of Stennis’s promoting community-school
partnerships. Other districts have provided different kinds of help —
passing school bonds, recruiting volunteers to help students apply to
college or offering new scholarships from businesses or individuals —
but all these collaborations are resulting in more students
continuing learning past high school.
“Stennis can expose the rest of the state to this,” Hardwick said.
“You’re going to see this more and more.”