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Education a popular topic at Chamber meeting

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Education a popular topic at Chamber meeting
By Brandon Roberts, The Huntington Herald-Dispatch

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. - Increasing educational achievement is critical to West Virginia's future, said many of the speakers at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce's 2015 Annual Meeting and Business Summit at The Greenbrier Resort.

But the state's leaders expressed a range of opinions about what needs to be done to improve student participation and performance.

"When we engage students in the learning process, we can prepare them to succeed at the next level whether through technical education and training, an apprenticeship program at one of our community and technical colleges, or a four-year degree at a state college or university," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said.

The Rev. Matthew Watts, founder, president and CEO of the Charleston-based HOPE Community Development Corporation, said during a session about workforce participation that education was one of key factors in what he called West Virginia's looming workforce and economic crisis.

"West Virginia has one of the lowest rates in the country of students going to college and one of the lowest college graduation rates," he said. "There are more than 56,000 people age 16 to 24 in West Virginia who are out of school and not working."

Watts cited a report from the Higher Education Policy Commission that shows West Virginia needs to graduate an additional 20,000 students between 2012 and 2018 to keep up with the demand for college graduates.

Tomblin said the state government is investing in the future by supporting the Promise Scholarship Program, which has provided more than $400 million to more than 35,000 high school seniors.

"While thousands have found success right here at home, we're also helping your companies' investment in West Virginia grow by supporting your current and future workforce," he said.

State Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, said charter schools are essential to educating West Virginia's students because parents want local schools, teachers want less bureaucracy, and administrators want more flexibility.

"Students' needs trump employment security of faculty and staff and seemingly top-heavy administration," he said. "I want a more student-centered education system that eliminates excess bureaucracy."

Sypolt mentioned the recent audit of the West Virginia Department of Education.

"I am committed to see why (it is) seemingly so overstaffed," he said. "There are perhaps 700 pages of state code dealing with public education, mostly piled one upon another; a Band-Aid for every occasion, but a solution for none, or very few."

Sypolt said classroom teachers and school administrators have told him big bureaucracy steals time and money from their objective, which is delivering educational opportunity.

"Many will say the system is broken and students graduate without basic skills," he said. "Some will say that our education system has failed us, and maybe it has. Even though there are those students who are not reached, each year the public education system will graduate many scholars, and those scholars go on to become productive adults with good jobs, some with advanced degrees."

Cathy Burns, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, said she was pleased to see education being discussed so often at the summit.

"It's an important issue," she said. "The topic of (the Chamber's) annual legislative event this year is education legislation and what is being done and can be done locally and at the state and national levels."

Presented by BrickStreet Insurance, the Chamber's"A View from the Capitol" legislative event is from 9-11 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 23, at the St. Mary's Conference Center, 2825 5th Ave., Huntington. A continental breakfast will be served at 8:30 a.m.

"A View from the Capitol" will be moderated by T.J. Obrokta, COO of BrickStreet Insurance. The panel of speakers will be Dr. Amelia Courts, president and CEO of the Education Alliance; West Virginia Sen. Bob Plymale, associate vice president for economic development for the Marshall University Research Corporation; Chancellor Paul Hill of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission; and Dr. Michael Martirano, West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools.

Cost to attend is $25 per member or $150 for a corporate table of six. To register, contact the Chamber at 304-525-5131.