The Community College Option, Part 1: Students not ready for 4-year college have limited options in furthering their education

Sunday, May 3, 2009
Central senior Brittany Smith, 18, hands her daughter Azariya, 2, shoes Saturday from bags of clothes that the two have at their new apartment in Cape Girardeau. The two moved into the apartment Friday, and Smith was getting ready for her senior prom Saturday evening. Smith will graduate from high school later this month. (Kit Doyle)

Editor's note: This six-part series will address community college needs in the Cape Girardeau area. Part one will look at underserved students. On subsequent Wednesdays the series will analyze issues with employers and other education providers.

Brittany Smith said there were days when she did not know who would watch her daughter, Azariya, so she could go to school.

Smith, a student at Cape Girardeau Central High School, had a baby during sophomore year when she was 15. Now 18, she lives on her own and is preparing to graduate. She said she is looking for opportunities in higher education to continue to be a good example for her 2-year-old daughter.

"I just keep telling myself you can't take care of a baby if you don't have an education," she said.

She said attending a community college in Cape Girardeau would be ideal.

While waiting for the bell to end Art 2 class Friday, senior Kyle Wells reads "The Twelve Kingdoms" at Central High School in Cape Girardeau. (Kit Doyle)

While the issue of establishing a community college in Cape Girardeau has been under debate for years, it is being addressed by a coalition of 11 business and education leaders. Group members have been meeting since early 2007, and they commissioned a study last year to assess higher education needs in the region.

The study, released last month, identified five underserved segments of the Cape Girardeau-area population: first-generation college students, underprepared high school graduates, older college students, residents with transportation issues and students who cannot afford the cost of attendance.

The coalition will set up a meeting this month after the end of the legislative session, said John Mehner, president of the Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce. They will figure out the next steps and eventually make a recommendation to the Coordinating Board of Higher Education.

Coming from a family with few college graduates, Smith is one example of an underserved student as defined by the study.

She said she also struggled as a young mother in the pursuit of a high school diploma.

"I got tired of people saying I wasn't going to graduate," Smith said.

She said giving the baby a bath and putting her to bed was part of her routine before doing homework. She works 33 hours a week at McDonald's while balancing school work and taking care of her daughter.

"I have no choice because I don't depend on others to take care of me," she said.

She said teachers and counselors recently helped her find and furnish an apartment, giving her a boost so she can focus on the next phase of her life.

Smith said she wants to study to be a mortician but is open to other possibilities. She is looking into attending the Perryville Higher Education Center and is willing to commute.

She has family in Atlanta and is considering relocating to attend a community college there, she said.

"My best thing to do now is to save up and leave," she said.


Katy Andersson, a counselor at Central High School, said the need for a local two-year college is growing among students. Finding opportunities in higher education for those students is challenging, she said.

"That's what's frustrating," said Andersson, who has been a counselor for 13 years.

She said more students are working to support themselves. Driving or relocating to a junior college outside the area is not always a possibility, she said.

"They have jobs here in Cape," she said. "They live here."

The A-plus program, which uses state money to pay for two years of community college for qualifying students, is underused because students have few options, she said. Students cannot use the program at Southeast's main campus, but they can at the regional centers.

"So Kennett has a better setup than Cape Girardeau," she said.

According to the school's survey of 2008 Cape Girardeau graduates, 7 percent of students said they were attending a two-year college. Out of 291 students, 65 percent said they were attending a four-year college.

Statewide, 40 percent of graduates in 2008 went to a four-year school compared to 27 percent attending a two-year school, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Kyle Wells, a senior at Central High School, said he does not know exactly what he wants to study after high school.

"Right now all I really have planned is to get into a two-year college," he said.

He is attending summer school to retake American history and health. Even if he had the grades to get into a four-year school, he said, he would rather start at a community college to make the transition to college classes easier.

Despite his poor performance in high school, he said, he never doubted he would pursue higher education.

"I wouldn't want to not go to college," he said.

He said he might eventually pursue a master's degree. He has no explanation for his low grades in high school.

"I have thought and have not been able to come up with an answer for that," he said. "I guess pure apathy and laziness."

He is looking into attending Shawnee Community College in Ullin, Ill., or Southeast's center in Sikeston, Mo., and is willing to commute from Cape Girardeau.

Wells said he will graduate in the summer. He said he failed health several times because he read instead of doing the classwork. What appeals to him about college is having the freedom to choose his classes.

"I love learning what interests me," he said.


Pertinent address:

1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Cape Girardeau, MO

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