By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
Representatives of secondary and post-secondary institutions gathered in Surprise last week to discuss the state and future of education in the West Valley.
A panel of top administrators participated in the discussion during the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Education Summit hosted Oct. 24 at The Colonnade, 19116 N. Colonnade Way.
In her introduction of the event, Melissa Holdaway, chief operations and executive officer at Arizona Charter Academy, emphasized the importance of quality educational options to the local economy.
“Education is really a huge economic driver in any community,” Ms. Holdaway said. “We are so blessed to have so many amazing options, high quality schools, and that is definitely a big advantage in our community. We’re real excited to share with you what those different options are and what everyone brings to the table.”
Along with Ms. Holdaway, the guest panel was comprised of: Dennis Tyner, vice president and provost at Ottawa University Arizona; Gail Pletnik, superintendent of the Dysart Unified School District; Melissa Holdaway, chief operations and executive officer at Arizona Charter Academy; Holly Medina, administrator at the West-MEC Northwest Campus; and Jim Grieshaber, administrator of the Career & Technical Education program at DUSD.
The discussion was moderated by Diane McCarthy, director of government and business partnerships at West-MEC.
Raoul Sada, who is president and CEO of the chamber, also spoke prior to the main event. His organization encompasses members from the cities of Surprise, El Mirage, Sun City, Sun City West and Youngtown and he echoed Ms. Holdaway’s sentiments in his opening remarks.
“Education ties directly to workforce development,” Mr. Sasa said. “When we’re trying to attract businesses, when we’re trying to attract investors, when we’re trying to attract capital to our community, one of the things that these individuals look for is a skilled work force.”
He said business growth is crucial to the success of a rapidly growing West Valley and that educational opportunities are an important factor in promoting a healthy economy.
“When it comes to making our community a better place, the viewpoint for the chamber is that in order to have a healthy, vibrant community, you need to have a healthy, vibrant business community. The two go hand-in-hand; you can’t have one without the other,” Mr. Sada said. “So, that’s the chamber connection and that’s the purpose of the program. When you’re hearing about the construction going on, the new jobs, the new students, think about it from that business perspective.”
Mr. Tyner of OUAZ led off the panel talk, answering Ms. McCarthy’s question: Why did Ottawa choose to locate its Arizona residential campus in Surprise?
“Why did we choose Surprise? We looked around the West Valley, we looked a lot around Arizona, and of course we’d been in Surprise for nine years already and we saw the growth that was taking place and recognized the limited number of educational institutions that were here in this particular area and thought that it was another market we could come and serve,” Mr. Tyner said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to be here.”
He said he expects the university’s inaugural class of 434 students – which started their first semester in Surprise this fall – to grow to around 3,000 students over the next decade. Students at OUAZ will focus on academics as well as real-world concerns, he said.
“One of the biggest things that we’re doing here is looking to develop work-ready students,” Mr. Tyner said. “There’s a lot that’s taking place at the collegiate level, but there’s very little emphasis on graduating students who are ready to enter the workforce.”
To that end, Mr. Tyner announced that Wednesdays at OUAZ are designated as personal growth days, with special seminars scheduled in the afternoons for students to engage with industry leaders on topics such as interpersonal communication and time management.
Focusing on work skills fills an important, missing niche in the market, he said.
The leader of the local public school district emphasized the value of resilience and adaptability to serve students who will be citizens in the economy and society of the future.
“For Dysart, it’s very simple,” said Ms. Pletnik. “We know public education is the backbone of democracy. We are preparing those future leaders and that future workforce. It’s our responsibility to make certain if we want a strong community, if we want to have a strong country, then we’re going to need to have students that are ready to take on any of the challenges or opportunities.”
She pointed out that students starting preschool now will be among those who welcome in the next century and that a resilient school system is crucial to serving the community in a rapidly changing economic and technological environment.
“Think about how rapidly things are changing in our workforce and in our lives,” Ms. Pletnik said. “We have to make certain when students are leaving our system, they are armed with not only the knowledge, but the skills and dispositions.”
Beyond academics, students must be equipped to communicate and adapt in order to succeed in life. Dysart prepares its students not only for college, but also for careers by fostering relationships with the business community and post-secondary institutions, she added.
Ms. Medina spoke about the value of preparing West Valley students to stay and work in their community. She oversees West-MEC’s new Northwest Campus, which opened its doors for the first time in Surprise this fall. In their first semester, students were offered five programs, including: cosmetology; IT security; law, public safety and security; medical assisting; and physical therapy technician.
“We’re very excited about West-MEC opening this year,” Ms. Medina said. “We opened our doors with five programs and a little over 200 students. So, we have the opportunity to work with all students in the area to prepare them for the workforce and to stay within the community.”
She said that well-prepared students can start a career or leverage their marketability to extend their education without needing to take on excessive student loan obligations.
“When students walk out our doors, they have some type of certification, or even a license, and they’re able to go straight into the workforce,” Ms. Medina said. “Or, they can use those skills they have learned to help pay for their further education, so they’re not ending up with high student debt.”
She said the new West-MEC campus is only in the first of four development phases and will continue to grow and develop to meet the needs of students in fast-growing West Valley communities.
“As the economy and business and needs change, we will change with to provide the educational training and certification to stay within the Surprise area, to continue that workforce development with students staying in the community and not having to drive halfway across town to get that education,” Ms. Medina said. “The idea is, they learn here, they grow here, they stay here.”