Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Two leaders for Little Rock

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

No one denies that the continued growth of the institutions of higher education that call this area home is key to the future of Little Rock and Central Arkansas. In Pulaski County, however, the conversation too often ends after discussing the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Pulaski Technical College.

UAMS, UALR and Pulaski Tech must indeed be major players in the growth of this region. But the focus on higher education cannot end there. Little Rock is the home of two historically black colleges with long, proud histories — Philander Smith College and Arkansas Baptist College. The two schools are within blocks of each other south of Interstate 630. They’re anchors for their neighborhoods.

And, to the lasting benefit of the capital city and our entire state, these institutions are led by two of the most dynamic leaders in Arkansas. If I had to make a list of people under the age of 50 (sadly, I no longer qualify) who will play important roles in moving Arkansas forward during the next decade, both Dr. Walter Kimbrough of Philander Smith and Dr. Fitz Hill of Arkansas Baptist would be on that list.

As I pointed out in a recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I’ve known Fitz Hill since he was a child. The public schools in Arkadelphia became integrated when I was in the third grade. Fitz’ older brother and I were in the same grade and friends from the third through the 12 grades. I knew Fitz would be a leader. As a fellow Arkadelphian, I’m proud of what he has accomplished.

In fact, I’ve always thought Fitz could be the first black governor of Arkansas if he ever set his mind to the task. That said, I don’t think his interest is politics. He has found his mission at Arkansas Baptist. However, the old political strategist in me cannot help but play out the scenario in my mind — Fitz obviously would receive heavy support from black voters and others who would like to see a black governor. But lots of rural good ol’ boys, who loved him when he was “Coach Hill” at the University of Arkansas, would support him because they don’t necessarily view the world in black and white when it comes to this individual. They see him as Razorback red. In Arkansas, that is something that should not be underestimated among male voters. To put it delicately, many of these white males likely are voters who wouldn’t otherwise support a black candidate. Veterans would support their fellow veteran. Fitz served in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. receiving the Bronze Star. And educators no doubt would love to see a fellow educator in the Governor’s Mansion.

Enough of that. As stated, Fitz has found his mission as he attempts to transform not only Arkansas Baptist but also the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

As for Walter Kimbrough, I’ve watched his accomplishments with interest since he was hired in December 2004 as the 12th president of Philander Smith. He was 37 at the time, one of the youngest college presidents in the country. He grew up in Atlanta, where his father was a Methodist minister and his mother was an author.

I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with him this morning at the Capital Hotel, and he told me he set his mind on becoming a college president at age 23. When he came to Philander Smith, he said the school was best known around Little Rock as “having some nice new buildings and a great choir.”

That was good, but he wanted more. On the school’s website, he lists Philander Smith’s mission as producing “academically accomplished students, grounded as advocates for social justice, determined to intentionally change the world for the better.”

Dr. Kimbrough’s “Bless the Mic” lecture series has drawn a long line of nationally known speakers to the Philander Smith campus and increased awareness of the school.

He also launched the Black Male Initiative in 2007. He was concerned that the six-year graduation rates at the school in 2006 were only 21 percent for black women and 11 percent for black men. In an article published earlier this year in Inside Higher Ed, Kimbrough said: “We deal with a lot of first-generation students, a lot of students who come from what I would consider to be horrible K-12 systems. If you admit students like that, you’ve got to do extra things for them. That’s the part that I didn’t see happening. We’ve admitted them, so what are we doing extra to really boost them? … Men really need to have these supportive and nurturing environments. It’s not just as simple as they need more tutoring. You could provide the tutoring, and the guys won’t come.”

The national six-year graduation rate for black students at four-year institutions is 40.5 percent. It’s 56.1 percent overall and 59.4 percent for white students. The graduation rate for black men trails the rate for black women significantly.

The Philander Smith president is involved in a number of Black Male Initiative events each year. They range from fashion contests to golf lessons to lessons on how to properly tie a tie.

He told Inside Higher Ed: “When institutions have these kinds of programs for any group, the so-called usual suspects attend, the guys who are already involved, who are in leadership positions, who are doing well academically. What we’re trying to do now is have events and then personally ask guys who never come to anything to come. We’re a small campus so we pretty much know everyone or know something about them. We clearly know the people who no one knows anything about. We know who they are.”

It would be wise for the white business leadership of Little Rock to support Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist. If Little Rock is to really become the “next great Southern city” or whatever the latest public relations slogan coming out of City Hall is, Philander Smith and Arkansas Baptist need to thrive.

 We have two of the top HBCU leaders in America right here in Little Rock. They’re young, they’re articulate, they’re energetic. It behooves all of us to help them succeed.

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The Arkansas college challenge

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Good news came from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education earlier this month. The number of students enrolled in Arkansas colleges and universities this fall is at an all-time high. The total of 165,201 students is up 6.3 percent from 2008 and an amazing 17.2 percent from four years ago.

Jim Purcell, the state’s higher education director, put it this way: “Especially in these difficult economic times, we believe that students see the value of education more than ever, and along with increases in enrollment, we hope to see corresponding increases in retention and graduation rates.”

Nine of the 11 four-year public universities experienced enrollment increases. Arkansas Tech led the way with a 10.8 percent increase in the number of college students. The University of Arkansas at Monticello had a 9.3 percent gain. The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff was up 7.9 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith was up 7.3 percent. The University of Arkansas at Little Rock was up 6.7 percent. Arkansas State was up 6.4 percent. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville was up 3.4 percent. Only Henderson and the University of Central Arkansas had fewer students enrolled among the public four-year schools.

Some of the most amazing growth continues to occur among the two-year schools. Mid-South Community College at West Memphis, under the strong leadership of Glen Fenter, is up 29.3 percent. Pulaski Technical College is the largest two-year scool with 10,258 students. That’s 12.8 percent more college students than last year. Northwest Arkansas Community College has 8,034 students, up 11.5 percent.

Jim Purcell, however, hits the nail on the head when he mentions retention and graduation. Getting more students enrolled in college is good. But that’s only part of the equation as this state seeks to advance economically.

Here’s where Arkansas finds itself as we near the end of 2009:

1. Thanks to the changes brought about by the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Lake View ruling, the state is doing a better job than in past years preparing high school students for college.

2. Thanks to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, far more financial aid will be available than in the past for students wanting to enroll in an Arkansas college or university.

3. More students than ever before are entering the higher education system.

Now, we must find ways to ensure they stay there and earn their degrees. It was reported earlier this year that the cumulative six-year graduation rate for public universities in Arkansas was 44.8 percent for the 2002 cohort of students, down 1.2 percent. That kind of drop is not acceptable. For Arkansas to advance economically, it’s going to have to rise far higher than its current ranking of 49th for the percentage of adult residents with college degrees.

The governor and members of the Arkansas Legislature face these challenges:

1. Ensuring that the positive changes that have occurred since the 2002 Lake View ruling remain in place. The standards that have been put in place for students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade are starting to produce results. In each legislative session, however, there will be know-nothing legislators who try to water down those standards. If anything, they need to be made stronger so the state’s high school graduates are ready for college.

2. Tying state funding for institutions of higher learning more closely to retention and graduation rates. Arkansas doesn’t need students who enroll as freshmen and then drop out. That’s a waste of limited state resources. We need students who will earn degrees. The competition among colleges and universities must be about more than gross enrollment numbers. Those schools that do a poor job of retention should be punished where it hurts — in the pocketbook.

3. Making sure that funding levels for general education and higher education aren’t cut. The money being generated by the lottery cannot be used as an excuse for cutting the amount of money for education that comes from the state’s general revenue fund and other funding streams. The lottery money is targeted for new scholarships. It’s not intended to be a replacement for funds already being channeled into the education system.

Let’s hope our elected leaders are up to the challenge. In Arkansas, the public policy focus must now be on college retention and graduation.

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An exciting prospect for Pine Bluff

Friday, July 17th, 2009

They used to call Louis Ramsay “Mr. Pine Bluff.”

He could just as easily have been called “Mr. Arkansas.”

Mr. Ramsay, who died in January 2004 at the age of 85, was a remarkable Arkansan. He was the only person in Arkansas history to have served as president of both the Arkansas Bankers Association and the Arkansas Bar Association. He was elected president of Simmons First National Bank in 1970 and served as chairman and chief executive officer from 1973-83. He helped make Simmons the statewide banking powerhouse it is today.

Mr. Ramsay was also a chairman of Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield and served from 1971-81 on the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees. I could go on — chairman of the University of Arkansas Foundation, chairman of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority, head of the 1986 Arkansas Sesquicentennial Celebration Commission.

He had been a Razorback quarterback in 1940 and 1941, earned medals for air combat service during World War II, joined the Pine Bluff law firm of Coleman & Gantt after graduation from law shcool and became a partner after only one year.

You get the point.

His daughter, Joy Blankenship, has long led downtown revitalization efforts in Pine Bluff.

Joy’s son, Drew Blankenship, is now an attorney for the state Department of Education. Drew is married to Pine Bluff native Ginny Blankenship, the research and fiscal policy director for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

And Ginny, in her spare time away from work, is now leading the kind of effort that Louis Ramsay would have taken on were he still with us.

A bit of background: Those who have followed education reform in this state are aware of the amazing job the KIPP Delta College Preparatory School has done in Helena-West Helena. Scott Shirey, who has nursed the KIPP School since birth, is now hoping to expand the charter school concept across the Delta.

A request for proposals has been issued to open a second KIPP school in Pine Bluff, Blytheville or West Memphis. With state Sen. Steve Bryles going to bat for for Blytheville, Ginny decided to lead the effort for Pine Bluff. It’s a friendly competition. Bryles, one of the state’s better legislators, wants to eventually see KIPP schools in all three Delta cities. So does Shirey.

But where will the next one go?

“I am trying to build a coalition of as many people as possible who want to see this school come to Pine Bluff,” Ginny told me Friday over breakfast at the Ozark Family Restaurant in Little Rock (I guess we should have been at Sno-White in Pine Bluff).

KIPP has a nationwide network of 82 public charter schools with a track record of getting minority children from low-income families into college. In a state where 36 percent of black children never graduate from high school, KIPP offers hope.

In 2008, 86 percent of the KIPP students in the eighth grade at Helena-West Helena scored proficient or advanced on the state benchmark exam in math. That compared to 23 percent in the Helena-West Helena School District. I could provide many similar statistics.

In Pine Bluff, which has been bleeding population in recent years, that are at least two former school facilities that could be used for a KIPP school

“This would be an amazing opportunity to bring new life to Pine Bluff and give hundreds of kids a chance at a better life,” Ginny said.

Ginny, though, needs help from those who live in Central Arkansas and Southeast Arkansas. Go to http://vhblankenship.googlepages.com/coalitiontobringkipptopinebluff to learn more. She can’t do it alone.

Ginny, a 1994 graduate of Pine Bluff High School, needs your support. So do the kids in Pine Bluff.

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The education beat

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

There have been three pieces of education news this week that bode well for this state and its future.

The state Department of Education reported on Monday that for the first time, more than 60 percent of Arkansas students at each grade level scored at or above proficient on both the mathematics and the literacy portions of the state benchmark exams.

The massive amounts of new funding and the more stringent accountability standards enacted since the Arkansas Supreme Court’s November 2002 ruling in the Lake View case are working. Now, we must fight the good fight each legislative session to keep less-than-enlightened legislators from watering those standards down. Eternal vigilance will be required.

On the heels of that news on the general education front came the news Tuesday that UAMS has been awarded almost $20 million from the National Institutes of Health to be part of a consortium of institutions that attempts to translate basic science discoveries into speedier treatments and cures for patients. The UAMS Center for Clinical and Translational Research will occupy 24,000 square feet of the old UAMS hospital building.

On Thursday, meanwhile, the UALR Board of Visitors voted to build an honors residential complex on campus that will house 500 additional students. An upcoming bond issue of between $28 million and $30 million will fund the residential complex and other projects. It’s a huge step forward for UALR.

Nothing is more important to the future of this state’s largest city than the success of its public schools, the continued growth and success of UALR and the continued growth and success of UAMS. It has been a good week.

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