Amarillo College has been the beacon of education in Amarillo for many decades. Countless Amarilloans have attended Amarillo College and have kick started careers through the College. And many Amarilloans have taken Amarillo College classes to enrich their personal lives.
Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, and Steven G. Smith, vice president of business affairs at Amarillo College, sat down with The Amarillo Pioneer to talk about all of the events happening at AC.
Pioneer: "Do you have any plans for new programs for lower income students?"
Lowery-Hart: "Yes. We have a very intentional interest in helping all of our students be successful, but especially our lower income students because they are the fastest growing population in our entire community, and we ignore them at our community's peril. So we've partnered with social service agencies. We've hired a social worker. We have partnerships with WT with both their counseling students and their social work students that are in their masters program where they have to be placed in an agency for clinical sites. We are intentionally trying to connect those students to a coach...and also connect them to high demand fields. Every student takes a career assessment. We look every month at the economic future as its shifting by industry and sector need, and we follow that data clearly. Where we have the biggest need for our community is for diesel mechanics, auto body, aviation mechanics, welding, industrial maintenance, machine shop, and truck driving. And every medical field that you could imagine - but particularly nursing. So we want our students to know where the high demand jobs are and try to connect them to it - especially if it's an interest of theirs. And we work with our area high schools to give student s a coach for college, before they graduate high school, to connect them to some student organizations. So they're developing relationships and connecting with faculty and programs in their interest. And we're having some success with that. We were just named a national finalist for an award based on that work...that we're kind of excited about."
Pioneer: "Community Colleges don't have to have a campus carry policy in place until the Fall. What does the progress on a policy look like at Amarillo College?
Lowery-Hart: "We are fortunate that we were given an extra year from the legislature because we have so many facilities that involve under age children. We have a task force that is led by the vice president of employee and organizational development and our executive vice president. We have been meeting with community and staff, but what we have most been watching is the legislature's responses have been to university plans because the law allows for approval of each plan for local control. But there are some real consistencies in what is rejected. So before we propose something, and we will propose something in February to get out ahead of where we have to, we will propose something that is very similar to what WT has...it will be similar to what every other institution has."
Smith: "As community colleges, we have one advantage in that the four year colleges went last year, so we get to see what policies they have that worked and what policies caused issues. So we'll have a chance to look at their policies and craft a very good one based on the experiences they saw this year."
Pioneer: "Did you get your start at Amarillo College?"
Lowery-Hart: "I didn't. I got my start at WT. I went there as an undergrad, and then worked there as a faculty member. And I never thought I would leave there. But when I started looking at the demographics and the data that as a community we were becoming less educated and poor and what that meant long term to this community that I love...I knew that really the most aggressive solution to that was Amarillo College. I love what WT is doing and I support it, but we educate panhandle kids at Amarillo College. 98 percent of students at Amarillo College are panhandle kids. We are the educational provider for this community and we are the hope for this community. If we can't get more students that are graduating high school to get into post-secondary and finish with a degree or a certificate, then we are all going to be paying higher taxes and our property values will be lower because we won't have a workforce that is educated at a level to attract better diversity of employers."
Smith: "It is important that WT and AC are really partners today. Really, the idea is that they can spend their first two years here and then move on to WT, as a partnership, because today AC and WT are working together on those things. When Russell talks about having less choices and us putting people into pathways, that give them the ability to be a little flexible as they grow older and figure out what they want to do. But all those hours are transferrable when they're ready to move on to WT. Instead of wasting hours on things that won't transfer, we're putting them into larger areas where those hours will be able to transfer to their four year degree. WT is excited about getting our studentswhen they finish here, because we are able to take a lot of time with them and help them be ready to be students and be successful. They do an awful lot of recruiting out of our base."
Lowery-Hart: "We need every one of our students to go there, but they have to finish here to go to any transfer institution. What we will be doing in the fall - for the first time in the history of Amarillo College - is we will be advising students into a two year plan up front. They'll know in the fall what their two year schedule will look like. Because we think we can give them a vision, because right now the time to degree is between six and seven years, and we need them to finish in two to three years, because the longer it takes them to finish, the longer it takes them to get their bachelor's degree. And we want our students to get their bachelor's degree."
Pioneer: "When you say that you offer them a plan for two years, does that take into consideration classes that you might take in the summer?"
Lowery-Hart: "Yes. We will be promoting year-round education, and for first generation students, our students are working right now two jobs and going to school part time. We need them to work one job and go to school full time. Because our data shows that when students are going to school full time, year-round, they're going to finish. Our community survival is dependent on them finishing. So, we're trying to redesign systems to promote that."
Pioneer: "Do you have anything like a support group for students who are top of their class?"
Lowery-Hart: "We have a lot of options like that, but two or three I think are having the most profound effect. One is called Finishers, which is a group of faculty and students who support each other through the process, through life struggles, through childcare issues, through car issues, or through classroom issues. They meet once a week. They may go to Hoffbrau. They may meet in one of our classrooms. But that's a large group of one hundred to two hundred students whose sole purpose is to help each other. The other group is the Presidential Honor Scholars Program, which is taking students who are in the top of their class and giving them a support network and a mentor, like the mayor and some other City leaders have been mentors, and giving them an international travel experience to show them how small the world really is. We have the ACE program where we keep that program together and those students together and we give them a coach that can guide them through their entire career here. There are lots of other examples of that, but those are the two or three which are the most impactful. I have this thing where I have secret shoppers. I take students in the community that have expressed interest in the community that haven't applied yet, and I give them a scholarship and they go through the application process and the enrollment process. And they go through their first year of college and tell me what did and didn't make sense that we didn't provide. And some very interesting themes have emerged from that. Relationship is the number one thing that those students tell me over and over and over. They have to have a relationship with someone, so a coach is critical. That's why we redesigned our values. Our students designed our new values and they're all about serving. Our students need every employee to be willing to drop what they are doing and serve them and walk them to their classroom or solve the problems they are having with enrolling or getting tutoring. They need to know we care and that we will do everything we can to help them. We've rewritten our values and are moving to a merit pay system where we reward faculty when they live those values. And that's to honor who our students are."
Pioneer: "That is some really exciting stuff."
Lowery-Hart: "It is. I could bore you to tears...but I'm very proud of the work we are doing. Especially when you've come through what we've come through where we chose not to raise taxes and we chose not to raise tuition, which meant we had to cut our budgets. We had to find it somewhere else and 85 percent of our costs are in people. We had to eliminate positions and we tried to do that in an honoring way as possible. The easier thing would have been to raise taxes and raise tuition because that would mean that wouldn't have had to tighten our belts at all, but that's not what the community needs from us."
Smith: "It certainly would have been easier but the last thing that we would have wanted to do is place the burden on our students. They're already struggling hard enough to get to school and to get through school. What our community needs is more graduates and not higher taxes and not students who can't afford to pay tuition, so we've really worked hard on the budgeting side to cut our costs and be more effective in the things that we do. For four years now we haven't raised taxes and tuition and we're going to make it five."
Lowery-Hart: "It's not always popular internally, but it's the right thing to do."
Pioneer: "Are there are any new events going on with Panhandle PBS?"
Lowery-Hart: "Panhandle PBS has become such a news source for the community. And a fair one, much like I think people are seeing you and what you are creating emerge as. They are working on some projects right now with Ken Burns who is doing a documentary on the Vietnam War. You will see a yearlong relationship with understanding that War and what the local implications will be and have been. I think that will be a profound addition to our community conversation."
Pioneer: "What is the Board of Regents and how do they work with the community?"
Lowery-Hart: "They are an elected body and they serve six year terms and functionally they are the leaders of the College. They are liaisons between the College and the community. Primarily, they hire and they fire the president. Then they hold me accountable to our strategic plan. They are responsible for writing policy that runs the college and I am responsible for executing it."
Pioneer: "So, you're kind of like the executive branch and they are the legislative branch."
Lowery-Hart: "That's a fair analogy. And I think that they are incredible partners. The Board that we have right now is engaged. They understand what's happening, they can articulate it and are very supportive of the conversation that we just had. They understand that what we have been through in the last two years hasn't been easy. They have had to make some really difficult choices. It's hard to say 'we're not going to raise taxes and tuition' when you have employees in front of you that may change their job or may not have a job. But they knew their primary responsibility was to the community and to our students. I'm really proud of the leadership that they have provided."