Mississippi’s public high school graduation rate was just 75.5 percent in 2012–13, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education — well below the national average of 81.4 percent. Without a high school diploma or technical credentials, people face low-paying job prospects, even at a time like this, with relatively low unemployment along the Gulf Coast.
“Many individuals could be work-ready if they had their GED or technical credential,” says Mary S. Graham, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College (MGCCC), the state’s largest GED-granting institution.
In 2014, MGCCC’s Transitions Academy began specifically targeting Mississippians over 18 to come and study basic academic skills and train for jobs in high-demand fields, such as welding and child care.
Individuals who enroll in Transitions Academy attend school at no cost. The program is modeled on a workplace environment (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), with students required to dress and behave as if at a job. Each weekday morning, three hours are spent on basic skills needed to earn the GED; each afternoon, three hours are spent on acquiring technical skills for a competency certificate; the remaining time is spent working with instructors, being tutored or practicing, as needed.
“The key is the team-teaching efforts,” says Jason Pugh, vice president of Teaching and Learning and Community Campus. Joint sessions allow teachers to home in on specific needs, and instructors get together on a regular basis to discuss student progress. For example, a welding student who excels in math but struggles with selecting the appropriate tool for a task may be pulled to the side for individual attention. Other students might need more help with academics.
Getting students college- and career-ready
The academy began by offering certification in welding or child care. In the two options combined, 28 students enrolled. Twenty-one successfully completed the 2014 fall program, earning GEDs, college credits and industry credentials. This completion rate compares favorably with the mainstream welding training program. (Complete data for spring 2015 is not yet available.)
Instructors found that the volume of information was quite high for people without high school diplomas. For fall 2015, the program will expand from 16 to 23 weeks, in hopes that students will gain more of the knowledge they need for success.
Child-care positions on the Gulf Coast are plentiful, but they don’t pay as well as more technical trades. The child-care program didn’t generate as much interest as expected and will not be offered this semester. Welding, on the other hand, has proved to be a winner.
“We have an extremely close relationship [with the shipbuilding industry],” Pugh says. “We’re [its] predominant trainer. Welding is one of the highest-demand occupations on the coast. Anybody with a welding credential gets a job.”
The welding program’s primary limitation is the required equipment students need to learn on, which is both bulky and expensive. “Our industry came to the table,” Pugh says. Even with some special funds from the state, more money was required. “The preparation of equipment, wiring, piping — infrastructure is very expensive.” Ingalls Shipbuilding donated more than $50,00 toward the purchase of welding machines; other companies have donated equipment and cash to set up the needed lab spaces and supplies.
Representatives of the Kellogg Foundation met with the presidents of Mississippi’s 15 community colleges to examine pathways training and have just announced a new $100,000 grant. Some of that money will go to a student navigator dedicated to this cohort. MGCCC also wants to expand its program to one of the college’s other campuses.
“I’m a little biased,” Graham says. “We have a culture here of being innovative and progressive in our thinking. We do a lot of things — sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t.”