Bladen County students: ready or not?

By Chrysta Carroll -

At a recent brainstorming session intended to generate ideas about recruiting small businesses to Bladen County, stakeholders voiced concern about education in Bladen County, and in February, at Elizabethtown’s budget planning retreat, during a panel discussion about about being business-friendly, the same concern was raised.

So what about the state of education in Bladen County? Is it as dire as everyone says, or are such statements merely renderings of the emperor’s clothes?

William Findt, who, in his role as president of Bladen Community College, sees both high school students and graduates, had only positive things to say.

“We’re finding that students are doing well universally,” he said.

In the past, high school graduates who didn’t fare well enough on the SAT to go directly to college courses were required to take a placement test to determine which level of developmental classes in English or math they needed to take. A national study, however, found that a GPA of 2.6 in high school seemed to be the dividing line in determining which students were successful in college and which were not. BCC switched to using high school GPA as a determination for college readiness, and has since dropped from 33 percent of entering students needing developmental math or English to 16 percent.

Not only are fewer students needing development coursework, but Findt also noted that last year, BCC had 185 high school students enrolled in college classes through its dual enrollment program, with a success rate higher than 90 percent, and this year, more than 200 have already enrolled, indicating that a high number of Bladen County’s high school juniors and seniors are ready for and succeeding at college-level work.

“This college has a reputation for working with students, and we have excellent staff,” said Findt. “Through our tutorial lab and working with students to ensure success, we’ve had good results.”

Findt also noted that a BCC student and product of Bladen County education was chosen in 2015 from among 180,000 community college students across the state as student of the year.

Vice President of Student Services Barry Priest compared Bladen County BCC students to students from other counties.

“We have 45 percent of our students come from other counties, and we cannot tell a difference between those coming from Bladen County and those coming from other counties,” he said.

As noted above, it has been stated numerous times that education needs to improve in order to attract business and industry to the area. When questioned about educational quality in Bladen County being a factor that prohibits or detracts industry and economic development, Bladen County Economic Development Director Chuck Heustess was quick to point out that such was not said by him.

“What we have talked about is the challenge of recruiting some of the high-skilled industries that require advanced degrees,” said Heustess. “Take, for example, a pharmaceutical-type company — if they needed 50 pharmacists, we wouldn’t have here in Bladen County 50 unemployed pharmacists looking for work. If we needed to recruit those pharmacists to come here, we would have to have the quality of life and amenities they expect and have housing and infrastructure to get them to move here.

“We don’t tend to have a lot of trained professionals when it comes to engineering and sciences, because we don’t have N.C. State or Clemson — although Campbell University is starting an engineering school — but that’s the situation in a lot of rural counties,” he added.

What everyone, it seems — business owners, economic development professionals, and educational professionals — can agree on is the lack of soft skills in the work force being produced in Bladen County. That problem, however, is not native to the Mother County.

“Bladen County needs to drastically improve on soft skills,” said Heustess, “but so does everybody else. If we could figure it out, we would have a big advantage, but right now, it’s not a disadvantage, because everyone is seeing the same problem.”

Soft skills, Heustess said, are those skills “that you should have learned at home,” such as showing up on time for work, phone etiquette, not interrupting, and table manners.

As an example, at a recent county commissioners meeting, a representative of the company doing the construction on the new jail informed the commissioners that the company was having a problem with local employees just not showing up for work. Commissioner Delilah Blanks noted that if people aren’t doing something constructive — like work — “we’ll be filling that jail before it’s even built.”

Priest said that BCC administration is aware of the need for soft skills training and tries to incorporate it into job-readiness programs on campus, as well as clubs and organizations.

“We’re a small school, so we can hone in on some of those things better,” said Priest. “You can go out to a university and take a psychology class with 200 people — and I wouldn’t discourage anyone from doing that; universities are important — but we have an environment that encourages accountability and one-on-one interaction between students and staff. We’re a college, and we expect kids to be in class and ready to go, but if they’re not, they might get a call.”

He added, “I think it’s (soft skills training) something we should start early. When kids are in pre-k, they should learn about not talking over others or not talking with their mouth full.”

Heustess agrees that the problem needs to be addressed early, and by many.

“It’s families, it’s churches, it’s the educational system, it’s the whole community — we all need to do better at creating an environment where people have better soft skills and are driven to be successful.”

Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 901-862-4163.

By Chrysta Carroll

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