Auto Industry, Community College Investments at Work in Motor City

Community college investment in Detroit

Community colleges play a critical role in meeting President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college attainment by 2020. In fact, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called community colleges the “linchpin” that will ensure the vitality of our nation’s economy through a better prepared and better educated workforce.

That’s why Duncan recently joined U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez at Macomb Community College near Detroit to learn more about the institution’s innovative workforce training programs. Macomb is leading a consortium of eight Michigan community colleges that won a nearly $25 million grant designed to create and expand innovative partnerships between community colleges and businesses to educate and train workers for in-demand jobs. The money comes from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program – jointly administered by the Departments of Labor and Education.

During the visit, Duncan and Perez toured Macomb’s Michigan Technical Education Center that trains students for careers in advanced manufacturing. Afterward, they joined Macomb President Jim Jacobs – along with college staff, students, businesses and workforce leaders – for a roundtable to talk about workforce training in Michigan. Sitting in a large clean room full of equipment used on auto-assembly lines, one Macomb alum talked about losing his manufacturing job and working as a valet – well below his skill set – until his wife told him about the TAACCCT program at the college. Within a week of graduation, the student had seven interviews and three job offers – not to mention a sense of hope and restored self-confidence.

“The auto industry is not dead in Macomb County,” said Jacobs, flanked by a Chevrolet Tahoe and a Ford Focus – both hybrids.

Secretary Duncan lauded the efforts at Macomb to help supply major industries in Michigan with highly skilled workers, saying the TAACCCT grant was an investment, not a gift.

“We have to help bridge the gap between employees who want to work and employers who want to hire,” Duncan told reporters after the roundtable, calling community colleges “regional economic engines.”

Colleges like Macomb work closely with local employers like Gonzalez Production Systems and Gentz Aero in Michigan to design programs that meet the growing demand for highly skilled graduates in the rapidly growing field of applied engineering and advanced technology.  In Washington, Spokane Community College is working with the Boeing Company and other local aerospace companies to improve aerospace workforce training in the entire state.  And in Maryland, GlaxoSmithKline provides scholarships to encourage students at Montgomery Community College to pursue careers in the bio-manufacturing field.

Community colleges are uniquely positioned to design their curricula to match local labor market conditions, making them flexible and relevant to today’s economy and job market. They are open access institutions committed to providing job-relevant educational opportunities to a broad population of students in their local communities. And their graduates are finding that they are able to participate in a knowledge-based economy, which demands a far greater level of credentialing and skills development than ever before. These companies partner with community colleges to invest in students with the kind of expertise they need – and the students are presented with real and specific career paths.

President Obama is looking to community colleges to play a key role in increasing the number of U.S. college graduates and helping more Americans get the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly interconnected global world. The President has called for an additional 5 million community college graduates in the next seven years, and institutions like Macomb are the key to making that a reality. 

Dorie Turner Nolt is press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education

Baltimore High School Beats Odds with Help of SIG Program

The odds were stacked against Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School.

Partners in Progress LogoThe nation’s second oldest historically integrated public high school faced a steep dropout rate, scores of students repeating multiple grades and dismal test scores. But with the help of a $4.2 million federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), the 900-student school has cut that dropout rate in half and seen test scores rise dramatically since 2011.

Dr. Antonio Hurt, who took the helm at Douglass during the first year of the school’s SIG program, opened a night school where students can get tutoring or take credit recovery classes so they can graduate on time. He expanded a recording and media production studio and began a law program where career and technical students can train. He created a dual enrollment program where his high school students earn college credit at nearby Baltimore City Community College. Hurt removed more than half the school’s staff in the first year and hired staff focused on creating a college-going culture for every student.

Students at DouglassHurt split the school into two academies: the Academy of Innovation where students develop the courage and intellectual habits to be creative, and the Academy for Global Leadership and Public Policy, designed to graduate future leaders of government, industry and communities.

“We dug into the data. We wanted to make certain we had programs to meet the entire population of kids,” Hurt said.

After the first year of turnaround efforts, the school increased proficiency rates in English language arts from 41 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2012. Math proficiency rates rose from 32 percent to 44 percent. While there’s still plenty of work to be done, Hurt says the school’s 2013 numbers are promising, too.

The SIG program is a key component of the Department’s strategy for helping states and districts turn around the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Under the Obama Administration, more than 1,500 schools like Douglass have implemented comprehensive turnaround interventions aimed at drastically improving achievement. Despite difficult learning environments, SIG schools have increased proficiency rates in math and reading since 2009, demonstrating the importance of targeted investments over time.

Dorie Turner Nolt is press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education