Gila Community College's 40-percent jump in enrollment could portend great things, Payson campus Dean Pam Butterfield said at a recent luncheon.
New programs include a 90-30 degree plan that allows students to earn a bachelor's from Northern Arizona University without leaving Payson, and a medical assistant program designed to let its graduates work in doctors' offices.
"In Payson, there just seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for the college among its citizens," Butterfield said. "I'm seeing an increased number of younger students."
After Butterfield described the litany of educational opportunities at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon, some expressed surprise.
"I heard things here today that I had no idea," said chamber manager John Stanton.
The 90-30 degree plan, new this fall, allows students to earn their first 90 credits through GCC, and the last 30 from NAU's office on GCC's Payson campus. The final degree is a bachelor's of Interdisciplinary Studies -- Public Management.
Classes include topics in public policy, mediation and conflict management, and intercultural communication. "You're studying among many disciplines," Butterfield said.
GCC is also partnering with Payson schools and Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT), increasing possibilities for high school students to earn both high school and college credit. Students can take agriculture and culinary arts programs, or business management classes, among others, at Payson High School.
Other students can choose to attend GCC from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and take a one-semester certified nurse assistant course, a four-semester extended nursing program or study fire sciences. The courses are also dual enrollment. Afternoons are spent back at high school.
Dual enrollment students at the high school can take college algebra, sign language and trigonometry for both high school and college credit.
Butterfield said she wants to offer dual enrollment with Payson High School's new Education Professions program that allows high school students to start on the path of becoming teachers.
Payson's Superintendent Casey O'Brien said preparing kids for jobs that will allow them to stay in the area partly addresses the concern he hears from community members -- "You're preparing kids, great, but they're not coming back to Payson."
GCC's partnership with NAVIT provides high school students with vocational classes, for which they can also get community college credit. NAVIT uses state funding to help school districts set up vocational programs that would otherwise be unavailable.
"We tend to focus on costly CTE (career and technical education) programs," said NAVIT Superintendent Matt Weber.
Ken Volz, executive director of Payson Regional Economic Development Corporation, asked Butterfield about the prospect of building dorms at GCC.
"The potential for the community college to be an economic engine is huge," Volz said.
Butterfield said the college needs more classrooms and more parking first.
Finding teachers is also problematic. "Right now, we're at the mercy of adjunct faculty," Butterfield said.
The college operates under the umbrella of Eastern Arizona College and receives less than half of the per-student funding other community colleges receive. Economics make it difficult to pay enticing salaries, Butterfield said. For instance, the college pays adjunct teachers one-half to one-third as much as Mesa Community College -- depending on class size.
However, the college is growing. Ten students have enrolled in a water and wastewater plant operations class. Last year's non-credit "EBay as a Home-based Business" is now offered as a credit course, and new Web-based classes are offered this semester.
Payson schools will also begin online instruction shortly.
"More and more students are seeking out other ways of learning," said O'Brien. "It's not ‘how do we resist that,' it's ‘how do we guide that and make that work?'"
O'Brien noted the district's facility upgrades are on budget and ahead of schedule. He said the improvements will lift morale, help attract qualified teachers, and enhance the perceptions of outsiders.
The new Julia Randall Elementary School is a good, quality school, O'Brien said, and should last for the next 50 years.
Improvements to the high school, while not addressed by the bond, will be examined in a new facilities strategic plan.
"This is important for the community, (and) it's important for the students," O'Brien said.
The Payson Center for Success, the district's "non-traditional school," is expanding into the regular high school.
The school offers an alternative for kids unable to succeed in a traditional classroom environment. The district is also exploring the possibility of offering alternative school classes at night.
Today's students need training beyond high school, O'Brien said. "The economy demands that." However, he added, "the idea that all kids need to go to a four-year college is erroneous."