Monday, May 21, 2012

Commencing a More Vibrant Community

As I reflect on the amazing feeling that comes from shaking five hundred hands crossing the stage at MVCC’s largest graduation ever, the words of Southern Poverty Law Center co-founder Morris Dees – MVCC’s Commencement speaker – linger for me. He told the graduates that they are witness to history and should help make their communities healthier, more vibrant and, most importantly, defined by equality and justice for all. But can we define those adjectives in actionable terms? The crutch phrase too often used in this region, “never too high or never too low in the Mohawk Valley” is a stereotype that glosses over definitions and data upon which we can act toward those more aspirational ends described by Mr. Dees. Why can’t the Mohawk Valley region aspire and pursue a more vibrant, reinvented era of prosperity? If only we had a set of indicators by which we can understand our baselines, align our collective efforts, and pursue focused progress!

Fortunately, the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties partnered with Mohawk Valley EDGE and the United Way of Greater Utica to identify a well-defined set of community indicators. You can view the full list of the 80 indicators here and the first annual report card here. At the fourth annual Poverty Symposium hosted on MVCC’s Utica Campus recently, Peggy O’Shea provided an overview of the indicators project and introduced the metaphor of community problems associated with the image of a tree and the indicators representing the roots of that tree – i.e., the indicators project will help us get to the root causes of the greatest challenges we face as a community. The primary challenge is that these indicators are not the sole responsibility of one person or one organization – they summon the attention and intention of all of us! 

Here are some indicators that MVCC is working on with our partners to move the community in a positive direction:

Population by race and ethnicity – As we celebrate the diversity of this region as a strength, MVCC’s nationally recognized and unique Diversity & Global View (DGV) graduation requirement and Cultural Series help our graduates (as well as faculty, staff, and community members!) become more culturally competent and self aware in an increasingly complex global society.

Children living in poverty – Our Gear Up and Upward Bound programs in conjunction with our school district partners provide inspiration and support for low-income and disadvantaged students in grades 7-12 – to help break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.

Median household income –Household incomes readily increase with better-paying jobs that can only come with additional education and training. Over the past five years, our credit enrollment has increased 25 percent (with more than 7,300 credit students last fall!) and our noncredit enrollment has nearly doubled during that same period. To help ease the financial burden, the MVCC Foundation provides more than 250 scholarships each year with specific funds for single mothers, part-time students, honors students, and many specific to our career programs.

People below poverty – Nothing traps people in poverty more than incarceration. As outlined in Michelle Alexander’s work, The New Jim Crow, we incarcerate our citizens at a rate seven times that of any other developed nation in the world and more African-Americans are in prison today than were enslaved at the height of slavery in 1850. Two thousand nine hundred individuals are released from correctional facilities each year in Oneida County and those who have committed felonies are unable to access food stamps, public housing, or find employment easily. MVCC’s New Directions program provides intake and support services to hundreds of formerly incarcerated individuals and lights the way to positivity and renewal.

Change in total jobs – With a trained workforce, our region can better attract and add jobs. MVCC works hard to match our programs to fill local workforce needs. We just graduated more than 125 nurses and are helping employers fill job openings for airframe and powerplant technicians, machinists, cybersecurity and other high-demand fields. The MVCC Foundation is also helping us launch entrepreneurship initiatives next year to inculcate an entrepreneurial culture of growth and development for years to come.

Student performance in English and Math – We partner with the Boys and Girls Club of Utica to provide the Reading Rangers summer literacy program to prevent learning gaps for low-income children over the summer. We are also working with local school districts to assess math skills for every high school junior in the area and identify curriculum for their senior year to ensure they are ready for college. In addition, with support of the Rome Community Foundation, we are launching the Rome Futures Academy that links literacy skills with career exposure and awareness to make the connection between school and work. 

High School graduation rate – Making that connection between school and work is something MVCC focuses on through our career camps for youth. This year we expect to have more than 40 career camps and serve more than 500 kids by giving them exposure to careers available locally.

College graduation rateOur Phi Theta Kappa student honor society won a regional award for leading the “Pledge to Complete” program in which more than 600 students, faculty and staff signed to pledge their commitment in supporting student completion and help produce our largest graduating class ever. This past year, MVCC’s graduation rate reached a five-year high. In addition, we have implemented the Pathways to Academic Recovery with intentional interventions and support to help students on academic probation get back on track toward graduation.

Education levels of adults – What if we increased the college-going rate of high school graduates by requiring high school seniors to complete an MVCC admission application in order to graduate from high school? Fortunately, a couple of progressive local superintendents have taken us up on exploring that question and are considering the implementation of such a program next year! In addition, our new Educational Opportunity Center will serve more than 1,000 first-generation college and low-income adults each of the next five years and provide the necessary support to set them on a path for a greater quality of life through further education and training.

Education levels of adults by ethnicity – Our outreach efforts and enhanced support services have increased credit enrollment of African-American students by 66 percent in the past five years and nearly doubled the number of Hispanic students enrolled at MVCC during that same period.

Technology degrees and technology program enrollment as share of total degrees – Founded as a technical institute in 1946, MVCC has remained true to that comprehensive mission and continues to nurture and refine our technical degree programs. In fact, we’ve had a Nanotechnology degree program on the books since 2005 – we just need a chip fab plant built in the area so students can complete the required internship!

When all local organizations review the 80 community indicators and set their focus on the ones by which they feel they can move the needle, we will start to see more consistent and positive developments in the region. Most importantly, we will see a greater alignment in our thinking and our actions – an alignment that could prompt a new saying, “Ever upward in the Mohawk Valley.”

If you have any comments or questions on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.