The West Memphis campus of Mid-South Community College is hyping its musical past with an eye on the jobs of the future.
Dr. Glen Fenter, the long-time leader of the Delta two-year school who grew up in the Fort Smith metro area, has been an outspoken advocate for reforms to the state’s education and workforce training system.
With lawmakers and state business leaders dialed in more than ever, thanks to a renewed overhaul of workforce education, Fenter says to get to the root of the problem, Arkansas must do more.
“The educational model as we know it today has really not morphed with our new global economy,” said Fenter, who appeared on this week’s TV and radio edition of Talk Business & Politics. “Arkansas has a number of leaders who recognize that this is a problem. Unfortunately, none of them have been able to crack the code.”
What Arkansas needs to do is start examining its educational components as “a system” instead of “different silos” says Fenter. He has been preaching for years that workforce education needs to start early in the K-12 process. He calls it “P through J,” or “pre-school through a job” education.
His school has had amazing success in developing star students – and workers – from below average kids in terms of educational attainment, income levels, and socio-economic circumstances. Fenter says it’s a matter of teaching them the basics in a language they understand.
Mid-South recently became a “conversion charter” school, which allows it to partner with the West Memphis Public Schools for educational advancement.
Junior high school students from West Memphis and Mid-South begin a dialogue of career options as early as 8th grade. By 10th grade, students can come to Mid-South’s campus and take limited courses. That accelerates in the last two years of traditional high school. By graduation, they are ready for work if they don’t take a formal course on a college campus.
“In many cases we can have them graduate high school with a nationally recognized certification in a number of areas that can put them straight to work,” Fenter says.
He also says the state must then be prepared to allow students to float in and out of higher education to develop skills for ever-changing workforce needs. Fenter likes the idea of a workforce czar – a potential leader who could cut through bureaucratic red tape and political barriers – to make decisions rooted in common sense and in the best interests of creating jobs.
“I know a number of states and large communities across the nation that are adopting just that model saying we can’t continue what we’re doing and expect different results, and understanding that the bureaucracies can’t just fix themselves,” he said.
Fenter also has an eye on helping Mid-South and West Memphis capitalize on its Delta musical roots. Earlier this year, the school recreated local radio station KWEM, which left the airwaves in the early 1960′s.
The station’s history is rich, with musical legends B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley known to have recorded music in its studios like legendary Sun Records across the mighty Mississippi River in Memphis.
“Essentially everything that we say happened in Memphis happened in West Memphis first,” he said. “Memphis, Tennessee has just done a much better job of telling that story.”