Business leaders to educators at WCU-convened conference: strong math skills a must

by Sep 24, 2013COMMUNITY sgadugi0 comments

CULLOWHEE – Western North Carolina’s educational institutions must re-emphasize the importance of mathematical skills at all levels – from basic addition and subtraction to advanced statistics, analysis and predictive modeling – if mountain students are to succeed in the modern workforce.

That was the message hammered home Thursday, Sept. 19, by panelists during a discussion titled “Mathematics and the WNC Workforce: Voices of Business Leaders” at the opening of a two-day conference of WNC educators ranging from pre-kindergarten through the university level.

Susan Ford, Sebastian Brun and Evelyn Graning of the Cherokee Central School System were among more than 80 educators from across Western North Carolina who gathered for a conference convened by Western Carolina University to develop strategies to improve the mathematical skills of the region’s graduates.  (WCU photo)

Susan Ford, Sebastian Brun and Evelyn Graning of the Cherokee Central School System were among more than 80 educators from across Western North Carolina who gathered for a conference convened by Western Carolina University to develop strategies to improve the mathematical skills of the region’s graduates. (WCU photo)

The conference was the first activity of the new WNC P-16 Education Consortium, formed after Western Carolina University Chancellor David O. Belcher pledged in his 2012 installation address to convene a group of regional leaders to address education needs, toward the goal of improving the knowledge and skills of the WNC workforce. More than 80 educators from across the region gathered for the conference, held at the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

“For nearly 20 years, those of us in the education world have talked the pre-K through 16 language of seamless education, with painfully meager results,” Belcher said, quoting from his installation remarks. “The consortium is not about creating another organization; indeed, I hope we won’t. It is, however, about coming together for real partnerships to target long-festering, systemic dilemmas such as the large numbers of high school graduates who enter colleges and universities unprepared to succeed in college algebra.”

Under the leadership of Dale Carpenter, interim dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, and Elaine Franklin, former director of NCCAT, the education consortium steering committee selected math and math literacy as the first topic to address.

Belcher told participants that the conference was designed to enable them “…to interact with major employers of the region to understand the skills that they are looking for when they hire; to explore the recently adopted – and much-discussed – Common Core standards for mathematics; to learn what colleagues at different instructional levels are doing to teach students critical math skills; to figure out where the holes are in our students’ math path and to strategize about how we can fill those holes; and to figure out, in holistic fashion and in vertical alignment discussions, how we can work together to prepare the kinds of graduates and citizens needed by the employers in our region.”

The panel of five WNC business leaders – Phil Drake, CEO of Drake Enterprises in Franklin; Jeanne Ellis, a manager at Biltmore Estate; Tony Johnson, director of WCU’s Millennial Initiative; Lumpy Lambert, assistant general manager at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort; and Keven McCammon, site manager for Facebook’s data center in Forest City – urged educators to continue to stress the importance of math to their students and to show them how math is used in everyday life.

Drake told conference attendees that his companies based in Franklin cannot find enough qualified employees from the region to meet demand. “I’m looking for people who are very analytical and for those who have the general concepts and can identify them. I’d love to hire Western North Carolina people to work in Western North Carolina,” said Drake, who is a member of the WCU Board of Trustees. “There’s not anything in my company that doesn’t require math, from the people who work in our family entertainment center to the accountants.” Drake also said that today’s students depend too much on technology and often do not grasp basic concepts. “I know you guys are math teachers, but I get people who can’t spell a lick because they depend on technology to correct their spelling for them. Even if they use spell-check, I still get ‘their’ instead of ‘there.’”

McCammon reminded the group that, with 1.2 billion users, Facebook works with very large numbers. “We have to figure out how much you guys are going to post as far as pictures. We don’t know that. You don’t tell us that. We have to use predicting software analysis and we have to analyze that from the standpoint of math and see what historical data tells us,” he said. “That’s how we calculate what the future may hold. People may not think about, when you start having 1.2 billion users storing pictures every day, it adds up to a lot of storage really quick.”

Although an entertainment-based business, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort needs employees at all positions, from dealers and gaming hosts on the floor of the casino to analysts in the business office, who have strong math skills, Lambert said. “We rely on the different math skills of our employees. Individually, everyone who comes through the door takes an initial math assessment, and from there we try to position the individuals in the right areas,” he said.

In his role with WCU’s Millennial Initiative, Johnson works to match faculty and students from WCU programs with private industry partners. “When you look at the programs in most demand in the region, every one of them requires a strong math background,” he said. “Over the past 25 years, I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of start-up businesses or existing businesses. I could tell within usually the first five or 10 minutes whether a business was going to be successful or not, and it depended upon one thing – math skills. If you can’t do break-even analysis, if you don’t understand cash flow, if you don’t understand financial feasibility, you’re going to fail.”

The Biltmore Estate’s Ellis, an English major as undergraduate who earned her master’s degree in business at WCU, admitted that she was “the trouble student” in math class. “I was the one in the front row of your classes going, ‘But why? Why? I don’t understand.’ I have learned a lot in the past few years about why math is important. I didn’t get it as a child and a student, and why it was so important to our daily lives,” she said. “Something that I really didn’t understand growing up is that problem-solving really is the key to everything.”

Conference attendees also heard from Johannah Maynor, high school mathematics consultant with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Teachers divided up into groups for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, sixth through eighth grade, high school, and community college and university educators to discuss strategies for improving math literacy.

As the conference came to a close Friday, each P-16 team developed a plan for carrying forward the work of the conference. Plans included asking administrators to devote upcoming professional development time for opportunities for math teachers to meet not only with their grade-level colleagues but with all levels of math teachers, including community college and four-year math instructors in their immediate areas. At least one team plans to explore how to bring employers into the classroom to help teachers and students apply math to “workplace” situations, and another will be seeking grants to enhance resources to teach Common Core math standards at every grade level. 

Organizers of the conference will collect suggestions for next steps toward improving the math skills of WNC’s students, and will share the information with participants with an ultimate goal of making graduates of the regions’ schools more successful in their careers after graduation.

Belcher acknowledged that the task at hand is too complex to be solved over a two-day conference. “This will be a journey of sorts, and maybe challenging at times,” he said. “But it is worthy work, because nothing less than the education of our people and the economic health of our region is at stake. This will be a journey, but I pledge to you that Western Carolina University will be your partner, all along the way.”

Registered conference participants included representatives of the Asheville City, Cherokee Central, Cherokee County, Clay County, Graham County, Haywood County, Henderson County, Jackson County, Macon County, Mitchell County, Rutherford County and Yancey County school systems;  Blue Ridge, Caldwell, Isothermal, Mayland, McDowell Technical, Mitchell, Southwestern and Wilkes community colleges; and the University of North Carolina at Asheville and WCU.

The conference was made possible by grants from the N.C. Ready for Success Program and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund through the N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center.

A video from the conference is available at