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Alabama’s Community Colleges Face New Challenges, But Remain a Gateway

Al Thompson

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By Al Thompson
Vice president of the Board of Trustees for the Alabama Community College System

Ask just about any Alabamian about the state’s community college system, and you’ll hear great stories about first steps, fresh starts, and fine finishes, too.

You’ll hear about people whose training led to a good job at an auto plant; people who established promising careers as nurses or welders; people who used our campuses’ convenience and cost-savings as a springboard to a four-year degree, just as I did.

Our campuses have been a gateway to prosperity for generations of Alabamians. Our state has a responsibility to make sure that remains true for generations to come. At the community college system’s board of trustees, we take this responsibility seriously and personally.

Meeting that obligation in today’s world, however, is an extraordinary challenge. To keep up with technological advances and a perpetually changing world, our community colleges must be in a position to adapt quickly, again and again.

Our students must be able to meet the needs of emerging and ever-evolving businesses and industries if we want them to get the good jobs of today and tomorrow. They won’t be successful if we provide them with yesterday’s skills.

We must build a framework that allows our campuses not just to react to new workforce trends, but also to anticipate them and be ready when they occur. The success of our 83,000 students, and our state, depends on this.

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Fortunately, Alabama leaders in the public and private sector recognized this need, and in recent years, they have initiated a process that will help mold our community college system for the 21st century and beyond.

In one of the first steps to ensure our campuses remain relevant and effective, the governor and Legislature separated the college system from the existing state school board, which had the unwieldy task of overseeing both the community colleges and the enormous K-12 system.

The new oversight board, which includes me and seven other volunteers from the private sector, is focused solely on the community college system and how to make it the best it can be.

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May 27 marked our first year on the job. We’ve spent much of that time listening and learning – about exciting things already taking place on our campuses, but also about the challenges they face and how we can meet them.

We have learned of many improvements over the years that have enhanced the value of studying at two-year colleges. Our campuses have worked closely with four-year institutions, for instance, to ensure a smooth transition for the thousands of students who take freshman- and sophomore-level classes at one of our campuses before finishing a bachelor’s degree elsewhere. Less costly studies on our campuses help put a full college education within the reach of many students. Our commitment to serving the needs of these students has not changed and will not change.

We must work just as diligently, however, to ensure a smooth transition for our students who leave our campuses with the expectation of getting a job.

Central to that effort is making sure that our associate’s degree and technical education programs line up with the actual workforce needs of businesses and industries.

If we want to prepare our students for high-wage, high-demand jobs, we must work closely with communities and employers to identify up-and-coming opportunities and to equip our students with the necessary skills. We are ramping up our partnership with state and regional workforce councils to ensure we meet the needs of business and industry. By doing this, we also will meet the most basic needs of our students.

We are also in the early stages of an effort to restructure the system — in some cases, by bringing multiple campuses under one administrative umbrella. This is not a reflection on the quality of any institution or leader; it’s simply a recognition that the less money we spend on administrative costs, the more money we have to invest in technology and programs that directly serve our students’ needs.

Ultimately, we will evaluate every campus in this state to see if there is a way we can improve what we are doing for the betterment of students and communities. These decisions will not be made in a vacuum. Any decision we make must be approved by state and national entities that provide oversight and assurances of the quality of the education we are offering.

We also will seek input from people who are most personally invested in our campuses and who have the most to gain from our efforts – students, employees, parents, alumni, taxpayers, business leaders, elected leaders, and local residents. We will solicit your input through community meetings, social media and other channels.

We understand this process could be unsettling and even unpopular. The people of Alabama have a sense of ownership and pride in their community colleges, and that is a testament to the value these campuses have provided over the years. I understand this deep sense of connection; my family was instrumental in the founding of Faulkner State Community College in Baldwin County.

But I’m also a businessman who understands how quickly employers have to move to stay up with trends and technology – and I understand that our campuses and students must be ready to move just as quickly, or they will be left behind.

Our community colleges are no stranger to change. At one time, some students at our campuses studied TV repair, but those programs faded out when the demand for TV repairmen declined. Likewise and more recently, medical transcription programs have found themselves squeezed out in the marketplace by voice-recognition technology.

But changes today occur at a much more rapid pace, and their impact can extend far beyond a single industry. Just think of the workforce implications of 3D printers, which allow consumers and businesses to “manufacture” their own goods and component parts. Think about the wide-ranging ramifications of cars and trucks that are able to drive themselves. These kinds of technologies have the potential to disrupt all kinds of businesses involved in the manufacture, distribution, or delivery of goods.

Potential game-changers like these demonstrate why our college system must work harder than ever before to understand and respond to evolving workforce needs. If we are not prepared for these changes, there’s no way our students will be.

The core of our mission is equipping our students to succeed. We must have a framework in place that allows us to do that. It’s imperative that we retool our thinking, align our system and invest in programs that will give our students their best chance for success.

There is no better gift we can give them, or our state.

Al Thompson is vice president of the board of trustees for the Alabama Community College System. He represents District 1, which includes the southwestern corner of Alabama. He is a former member of the Alabama State Board of Education and an alumnus of Faulkner State Community College, and owns Thompson Properties in Baldwin County.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Celebrating the Nineteenth Amendment

Bradley Byrne

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On August 18, the U.S. will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to our Constitution which guaranteed women’s right to vote.  The women’s suffrage movement in our country began in the 1840s as women abolitionists saw the parallels between the effort to free enslaved Americans and their own desire to vote.  A convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 which produced an organized group led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, among others.

The two movements worked together until women suffragists became angered over the fact the Fifteenth Amendment gave freed slaves the right to vote but didn’t extend that right to women.  Over the next 50 years women suffragists labored to gain the franchise.  One bloc worked to pass a constitutional amendment at the national level while another focused on the individual states.  The Wyoming Territory was the first to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by the Utah Territory and Idaho.

Momentum built in the 1910s when Washington state, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, the Alaska Territory, Montana, and Nevada gave women the right to vote.  But, states in the East and South were reluctant to do so and the effort to add a constitutional amendment picked up speed.  While Republicans were generally supportive, Democrats weren’t.  President Woodrow Wilson preferred a state by state approach, but suffragist leaders kept up the heat, even sneaking a banner challenging him into his speech to a joint session of Congress.

When the US entered World War I some wanted the suffragists to back off, but they indignantly fought on with the argument that the fight for freedom and democracy in Europe should be paralleled at home with a constitutional amendment enfranchising the one half of the U.S. population denied the right to vote.  By 1918, President Wilson changed his mind.  The House passed the amendment, but the Senate couldn’t get the two thirds required vote even after Wilson took the unprecedented step of addressing them on the Senate floor.

Suffragist pressure finally swayed enough votes to get Senate passage in 1919, and ratification was achieved with Tennessee’s vote on August 18, 1920.  It’s hard to imagine that my two grandmothers, both adult women with families of their own, weren’t allowed to vote until that year.  The Nineteenth Amendment is too often a forgotten part of our history, but I hope we will use this anniversary to remember how important it continues to be.

When I look around Alabama, I see the fruit of the suffragists’ labor.  We have a female governor in Kay Ivey and two female members of Congress, Martha Roby and Terry Sewell.  Women serve as Federal judges, state appellate and court judges, district attorneys, and in the Legislature.  I work with women county commissioners, mayors, and city council members across the First District.  They, each of them, make great contributions to our quality of life and the administration of justice.

My little granddaughter, Ann-Roberts, is a very smart and active girl.  I have no idea what she will do when she grows up, but she’ll be darn good at whatever that is.  Imagine telling her she can’t vote or hold public office.  I can’t.  And, I’m glad my grandmothers finally got to vote.  It took far too long to give it to them.  Let’s remember this important anniversary and the value to all of us of our previous right to vote.

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Economy

Opinion | Alabama’s workers deserve better than McConnell’s inadequate COVID-19 proposal

Bren Riley

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America is suffering from an unprecedented pandemic and the economic collapse it has created. Nearly three months ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill. Right now, that bill is sitting untouched on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk as working people are suffering.

Senator McConnell’s told us to “pause” after the HEROES Act passed, proving he either did not understand how serious this pandemic is or did not care to. Regardless, the McConnell proposal is $2 trillion too short and 73 days too late.

Working people need real relief, not this piecemeal proposal.

For example, Senator McConnell insists he will block any further COVID-19 relief legislation unless it contains a provision that immunizes employers from liability if any working person contracts COVID-19—or God forbid dies from it. We know that now more than ever worker safety should be a top priority, but McConnell continues to put big businesses before people.

Unlike the HEROES Act, Senator Sen. McConnell’s proposal does not call for an OSHA emergency temporary standard. Last week, AL.com reported that out of the 272 state OSHA complaints related to COVID-19 workplace safety, the federal agency conducted just seven on-site inspections. And six out of those seven inspections were the result of a workplace fatality. If Alabama’s experience with COVID-19 in the workplace has taught us anything, it’s that our working people need an enforceable standard now more than ever.

Like every state in the nation, Alabama is suffering from an unemployment crisis. An estimated 7.5 percent of Alabama workers are currently unemployed through no fault of their own. While the HEROES Act would extend federal unemployment benefits, McConnell’s proposal would cut the recently-expired $600 weekly unemployment insurance benefit to just $200. That represents a major drop in the living standards of thousands of families across our state. That money is a lifeline to pay for necessities, including rent, groceries, and prescriptions.

We can’t afford to let anyone fall through the cracks. And recovery down the road requires us to keep working people whole right now. That’s why Alabama’s labor movement has been taking part in a nationwide effort to call on Senator Jones and Senator Shelby to pass the HEROES Act. Across the country, union members and leaders made over 50,000 calls to members of Congress demanding action, and we’re not slowing down until we get a bill that benefits

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We all know Alabama is home to great football, incredible food and southern hospitality. But if we go by the number of new cases per million people, Alabama is also currently home to the fourth-worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. The percentage of positive tests is more than 21 percent and rising. We demand and deserve better. Alabama’s working people are acting heroically and resiliently to beat this pandemic, but we cannot do this alone—and the clock is ticking. The Senate needs to pass the HEROES Act to save lives and livelihoods.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Comprehensive sex-ed for all can improve people’s health

Annerieke Smaak Daniel

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Last July, I spoke with Sky H., a 20-yearold who identifies as non-binary and grew up in a very conservative rural town in the Black Belt region of Alabama. In school, Sky received abstinence-only education. Sky told me there was little instruction about sexual and reproductive health besides the basics of reproduction.

After years of pain, Sky was diagnosed at age 18 with endometriosis, a painful disorder that can lead to fertility complications. The condition might have been diagnosed much earlier if they had learned more about their own bodies and reproductive health in school, Sky believed.

Unfortunately, Sky’s experience isn’t unique. Over the past year and a half, I’ve spoken to more than 40 young people from 16 counties throughout Alabama who also didn’t learn about their sexual and reproductive health in school. Like Sky, they missed out on critical information and described the negative impact this had on the choices they made and their health as they grew older.

Schools in Alabama are not required to teach about sexual health but if they do, the State Code mandates a focus on abstinence. The State Code also contains stigmatizing language around same-sex activity and prohibits schools from teaching about sexual health in ways that affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. This makes it even harder for young people like Sky to get information.

But Alabama is not alone. Sixteen other states in the U.S. also do not mandate sex education in schools. And at least five others have laws stigmatizing samesex activity.

Comprehensive sexuality education can improve health outcomes for young people. It can help them learn about their bodies and how to recognize abnormal gynecological symptoms, steps they can take to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and other dangers to their health, and where they can go for reproductive health services.

Sex ed can also educate young people about the human papillomavirus (HPV) — the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. — and how to lower their risk of HPV-related cancers through the HPV vaccine.

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This information can improve young peoples health and save lives. Yet so few young people in schools throughout Alabama and the U.S. receive it. Instead, like Sky and other Alabama students, many young people receive abstinence-focused education.

These programs withhold critical, science-based information young people need to make safer decisions on their sexual health. They also shame adolescents about their sexuality, often leaving young people uncertain about who they can talk to or where they can go for accurate information about sexual behavior and health.

The problem is both a lack of political will and of adequate funding. Discriminatory property taxes and an inequitable education system leave many school districts in rural and less wealthy regions of Alabama without adequate funding. This means that programs considered optional, like sex ed, often aren’t offered.

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Alabama, a state with high rates of sexually transmitted infections and cancers related to HPV needs to do more to address historic inequalities and state neglect that have left Black people at a higher risk of poor health outcomes. Mandating comprehensive sexuality education for all of the states schools — and allocating state funding for these programs — would be an important step forward.

Students in underfunded and neglected school districts many of whom are Black and living in poverty — often lose out on access to critical and lifesaving information. It keeps them from being able to make informed and safe decisions and can harm their health. This unequal access to information can create lifelong disadvantages and may contribute to racial disparities in health as young people age into adulthood.

The Black Belt region of Alabama, where Sky is from, has high rates of poverty and poor health outcomes. The Black Belt region also has high rates of sexually transmitted infections and the highest rates of HIV in the state. Yet schools in this rural and marginalized region of the state are persistently underfunded.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought glaring attention to systemic inequalities and racial disparities in health, including in Alabama, where Black people are significantly more likely to die from the virus than white people. Within the United States, we continue to see the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black people, who are more likely to live in poverty, lack access to health insurance, and suffer from chronic health conditions that put them at a higher risk of adverse health outcomes from the virus.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring that everyone has the information, tools, and resources they need to make informed decisions to protect their health. Schools in Alabama — and across the country — should help do that for all young people.

The pandemic is also showing us what happens when discrimination and neglect leave certain people out.

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | The “United” States of America. Really?

Larry Lee

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We’ve all had it pounded in our heads virtually from birth that we live in a united country of 50 different states. Truth is, few things could be farther from the truth. If it were, we would all be pulling in the same direction at the same time, striving for common goals. This has seldom been the case. Even the original 13 colonies had great differences and some were much more interested in pulling away from England than others.

The reason for much of this is pointed out to us in American Nations by Colin Woodard as he paints graphic pictures of the 11 nations that actually comprise the U.S .and how they were settled at different times by different people from different backgrounds.

Certainly, there is no greater indicator of our lack of unity than the current highly fractured and divided response to COVID-19.  Unfortunately, there is no coordinated, 50-state effort to get this pandemic under control. Instead, our national leaders have sent one mixed message after another and left states to individually flop and flounder.

The result?

One thousand deaths a day across this land.

Imagine we were presently losing 1,000 people a day in some foreign war. That each day we were shipping 1,000 caskets back to this country from some distant land.

Would we be as tolerant of ineptitude in such a crisis as we are right now?

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Vanity Fair has just reported on how the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, inserted himself into the war against COVID-19. It is not a pretty picture. Nor a useful one.

Back in March Kushner set out to solve the on-going disaster of lack of diagnostic testing. So he brought together a group of largely bankers and billionaires — not public health experts. In spite of their lack of knowledge and willingness to work with others, the group developed a fairly comprehensive plan, that got good reviews from health professionals who saw it. But then the plan, according to someone involved with it, “just went poof into thin air.”

What happened? Politics.

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According to Vanity Fair, “Most troubling ….was a sentiment ….a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically.  The political folks believed that because it (the virus) was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

“United” States of America? Don’t kid yourself.

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