Dr. Ginny Simmons has served for seven years as Director of the Adult and Community Education program for Horry County Schools in South Carolina. Additionally, she acts as Director of the Regional Adult Education Technical Assistance Center, an initiative of the South Carolina State Department of Education. Dr. Simmons recently sat down with the ABE/WIA Advisor staff to discuss her award-winning program.
How did you become involved in adult basic education?
I worked for the Horry County School District for a number of years and then semi-retired to raise my family. I reentered into the District as a part-time adult education teacher, and when the superintendent included a full-time director position in adult education in the District budget, I applied and was selected. My past experience in the District has served me well in my current position. During my first tenure with the District, I was an advocate for instructional programs that fell outside the usual K-12 mission, and now in my second tenure I find myself as an advocate for the adult education mission. This advocacy isn’t carried only by me; my entire staff from the administrative office to the classroom instructors to the counselors work daily to carry out or mission of serving the least educated and most-in-need South Carolina adult learner.
Tell our readers about the scope of your instructional program.
The Adult and Community Education program for Horry County Schools offers full-service instruction centers staffed with 11 full-time and additional part-time instructors. There are 1,400 learners annually enrolled in adult basic and adult secondary education, English-as-a-Second Language, college- and career-readiness, WorkKeys certification, computer literacy, family literacy and high school equivalency and high school completion. Teachers work staggered schedules to ensure the centers are open 8AM-8PM Monday-Friday. Each center has a full-time career development specialist to assist learners in transitioning to college or the workforce, and our adult and community education support group—comprised of representatives from local social service agencies, community-based organizations, and business and industry—meets regularly at each center to inform learners of support and work opportunities in the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area. We are especially proud of the nascent student council that has been established by the students at one of our centers and look to replicate this student service organization across our entire program.
Your mission statement includes the words “supportive student-centered teaching and learning.” Comment on your implementation of this notion.
Well, again, I must say this is a notion that is reflected and echoed by every person employed in the program. It is our job to demand and deliver services that we recognize are best for our learners; not necessarily those that are convenient for us to offer. Early in the last decade, we began to look at our data—enrollment, assessment, completion, U.S. Census—to direct us in instructional decision making. The result was we found holes in our service delivery model, and we plugged them. Over the last 10 years, we’ve gotten better at analyzing these data, and today, data drives our continuous program improvement. The following example may help illustrate our growth in establishing student-centered teaching and learning. Seven years ago, the data team uncovered that few of our graduates were prepared for the technical challenges of the world and workplace. We looked at our computer hardware infrastructure and teaching competencies and knew we had to upgrade in both areas. We won grant funding from Verizon to build a computer lab and to train instructors in the use of the lab. Today, we have computer labs at all of our centers staffed by a dedicated computer literacy instructor offering our learners the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need in the workplace and/or in postsecondary education. Other examples of supportive teaching and learning include our access to childcare for learners, flexible scheduling including options for distance learning, creative scheduling of classes, counseling services, and community engagement in our program.
You mentioned a Verizon grant that you used to start your computer labs. Do you have other grant funding?
Yes, in addition to our WIA Title II funding, our entire staff is actively engaged in searching for and securing grants—the passion, vision, sense of mission, and focus my staff shows everyday makes its easy to come to work every day! Some of the national grants we’ve secured include Barbara Bush literacy grants and Dollar General grants for five consecutive years. Yet, I think some administrators don’t look locally for grant opportunities. We have underwritten with local grants our efforts in establishing our data team, teen pregnancy group, and certified nursing assistant program.
Do you employ an open-entry/open-exit or management enrollment model?
We are an open-entry/open-exit program. Our data team uncovered that we were losing a significant number of learners after their initial basic skills testing upon entry into the program. We refined our initial one-day assessment strategy by offering initial basic skills testing not in one session but rather staggered over a three-day orientation process. In addition to basic skills assessment, the orientation sessions incorporate a computer literacy assessment, a career assessment, and an overview of the instructional program. Our retention numbers have improved dramatically and continue to improve under the three-day orientation.
What are your doing to prepare your staff and learners for the 2014 GED® Test?
First, let’s talk about the learners. I think it is a misconception that the younger GED candidates are prepared for the new item types and the older candidates are not. I think we need to work on computer literacy so that both younger and older candidates are equipped to perform well with new item types on the 2014 GED Test. We falsely assume that since younger learners have grown up with computers that they can perform functions required on the new test such as drag-and drop, opening dialogue windows, cutting and pasting, and populating hot spots. Our computer literacy assessment that every learner takes upon enrollment in the Horry County adult education program tells us that all learners—regardless of age—need sustained instruction and skill practice in computer literacy. Lastly, we enroll our learners in Khan Academy, the online library containing short video lessons, practice exercises, and a student management system to track our learners’ progress.
We have already begun GED testing on the computer. This year, in a trial program with the GED Testing Service, we began offering the current version of the GED Test on computer. We are learning from this experience and will be able to incorporate best practices for computer-based testing into our GED instructional program.
Our staff receives ongoing professional development in computer technology and computer software manipulation, the Common Core Standards initiative, the 2014 GED Test, and instructional resources. All full-time teachers have an iPad that is used in delivering instruction and all classrooms have iPads for use by learners. Our teachers incorporate Whiteboard technology in the classroom, and learners engage in interactive lessons by using clickers to respond to student assessments. We recently expanded our technology footprint by incorporating iPhones into classroom instruction by means of the web site www.pollingeverywhere.com. Webinars have provided us the most up-to-date information about the changes in the new GED. It is our goal that in 2014 all of our instructional materials will be digitally delivered; we are abandoning text-based instructional materials.
Describe some of the ways you market your program.
Every community has businesses and industry that search for volunteer opportunities in the community, and Myrtle Beach is no different. When we were developing our initial marketing plan, Time Warner Cable assigned its local marketing director to assist us. This individual led our team in organizing and completing a marketing plan that has resulted in a significant increase in our enrollment, our community engagement, and our standing within our own school district. We would never have been able to pay for the consulting we received, and we are deeply appreciative of Time Warner’s commitment to our program.
One result of the plan was the birth of our avatar, Ed the Turtle. During a planning session, our Time Warner consultant asked how a learner would find about our program through an online search. To our surprise, a web search of our program—which started on the landing page for the school district—was neither intuitive nor easy to navigate. Our marketing consultant quickly identified an answer: We needed an easily identifiable logo with its own dedicated web site. So, Ed the Turtle was born and his avatar is seen in this Wonderlic newsletter. Why a turtle? Well, like our students, a turtle has to stick its neck out to get anywhere; it takes small steps, one at a time; it has a hard shell; and it is indigenous to our region. Ed the Turtle is the anchor of all of our external and internal marketing and is an instantly recognizable logo in the community.
Your program hosts the international conference TLC @ The Beach. What lead you to start this initiative 3 years ago, and how has it progressed?
The “TLC” stands for Technology Learning Conference, and our conference this year in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina will be held March 13-16. In 2010 we were looking for a conference that melded technology and instructional delivery. We found conferences that addressed technology, and we found conferences that addressed instructional delivery, but we could not find a conference that married the two strands. Our technology team posed the question: “Why don’t we host our own conference in which we address the delivery of instruction through technology?” Since 2011, TLC @ The Beach has presented a practical approach to integrating technology into literacy and learning for adult and community educators, K-12 teachers and administrators, workforce development professionals, and instructional technology managers.
This year we added a pre-conference session on March 13. Our keynote speakers this year are Dr. Milton Cher, Dr. Deborah Delisle, and Dr. Gerrita Postlewait. Participants will choose among 42 breakout sessions and visit with vendors that specialize in integrating technology into the literacy curriculum. For fun, we sponsor a golf tournament and, of course, the beaches of South Carolina. Registration and conference information is available here.