New academic year, new leadership team for Southern Tech

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Sam Noble Parkway just east of Ardmore will become plenty busy beginning this week considering Southern Tech begins a new academic year on Monday. The career tech facility has both new amenities and new leadership as the campus looks to expand to help a growing aerospace industry in the next two years. 

Southern Tech Superintendent Dr. Eric Ward and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Bills. Ward served as deputy superintendent for two years and Bills has over 20 years of experience with Metro Tech in Oklahoma City.

Dr. Eric Ward was approved by board members in February to replace retiring Southern Tech superintendent Dr. David Powell. Having worked as deputy superintendent for two years, Ward took over in an official capacity in July and has spent the first month on the job getting himself and faculty ready for a new academic year. 

“I think it’s just getting to know each other and getting to know how each other works,” Ward said on Friday. 

Ward said some campus leadership teams were realigned and communication gaps between departments were filled, but the most notable change noticed by students would likely have been with recent orientations. Ten sessions were scheduled over the course of a week and Ward estimates about 500 students were given guidance and resources well before classes begin. 

“It’s a new feat for our school. We haven’t really done orientation like this in the past,” Ward said. “We wanted to make sure students had a variety of options.” 

Joining Ward in Southern Tech leadership is Dr. Stephanie Bills, who brings decades of experience in Oklahoma’s career and technical education system. She most recently worked as the assistant superintendent for the state’s career tech campus in Oklahoma City. 

“I think one of the things that make us a great duo is that he comes new from Colorado with a fresh perspective, and I have more of the rich history of career tech across the system,” Bills said. 

The new leadership team at Southern Tech – Ward being only the fourth person to hold the superintendent’s position in 55 years – faces an evolving education landscape. Plans for expanding course offerings and delivery methods remain priorities but a pandemic that drags on into a third school year remain a major concern. 

COVID-19 AND THE ACADEMIC YEAR 

Last year, the school implemented a number of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Entryways had temperature screenings and hand sanitization stations, and many classrooms required masks before entry. Thanks to state legislation approved by the governor in May, House Bill 658, public schools including Southern Tech cannot currently implement mask mandates or vaccine requirements.  

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Health programs director Alisha Mason, who has also helped lead the campus pandemic response, said the legislation has limited what measures Southern Tech can use to slow the spread of COVID-19 locally. While temperature screenings, health reports and mask requirements will not be used this year, Mason said faculty still plans on extra sanitization efforts across campus and on buses while relying on students and faculty to be responsible. 

“That’s the best we can do. We’re trying to balance what regulations are from all the entities, but we try to encourage healthy practices,” Mason said. “We’re just recommending masks for those that are vaccinated or not vaccinated. That’s just a recommendation based on our current numbers in the area.” 

Under the state legislation, which went into effect last month, schools could implement mask mandates after consultation with public health officials and if the governor declared a state of emergency. Gov. Kevin Stitt told reporters in Tulsa last month that he had no intention of declaring an emergency due to the pandemic, according to The Oklahoman. 

A sign on a classroom door informs people of coronavirus precautions at Southern Tech Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Unlike the previous academic year, public schools and career tech cannot implement mask mandates on campus.

The school will also conduct contact tracing and notify staff and students if they are potentially exposed to COVID-19. Mason said the internal measures taken by the school to develop a system were modeled from observing state health department guidance and using local lessons from last year. 

“If anyone wants to self-report a situation where they’re not feeling well or a potential exposure on their part, we have a process for both staff and students to do a COVID report survey,” Mason said. 

RECOVERING FROM A PANDEMIC 

Mason said staff in the health programs at Southern Tech have been keeping up with their own certifications during the summer months and rebuilding partnerships with outside agencies to resume clinical time for nursing students. 

During the height of the pandemic in 2020, hospitals and nursing homes where student nurses would gain experience alongside working professionals were abruptly closed. The lockdowns meant months without off-campus instruction and Mason said those programs are finally being redeveloped. 

“We’re building the house back,” Mason said. “We’re gaining ground.” 

Unlike last year, members of the public can also return to campus for live work through the school’s cosmetology and dental hygiene courses. Last fall, cosmetology classes were not accepting any clients and dental hygiene classes were only accepting a limited number of clients. 

DRIVING THE CURRICULUM, REACHING MORE STUDENTS 

Southern Tech provides career and technical education to thousands in Carter County and parts of surrounding counties, including students in some of the most remote parts of the state. Bills, who collected over 21 years of experience working at Metro Tech, said that she is confident a new way of delivering content to certain students will soon begin for southern Oklahoma students. 

“We’re looking at offering our math classes for career and distance (education) through transportation. We have some of our students that are on the bus for right up to an hour, so being able to offer a math class during that time is something that we’re really looking at,” Bills said. 

The Southern Tech Student Services Center on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. The recently completed center provides administrative offices and student resources.

By connecting with these far-flung students who could be on a bus for up to two hours each day they attend Southern Tech, administrators hope that rural high school students can be afforded a unique way to receive instruction and academic credit. 

“We’re at the point in the evolution of education that we can be a little more creative about how we’re delivering instruction and how we can meet the needs of students,” Ward said. 

With a recent round of construction finally completed and more expected on the eastern edge of campus to begin later this year, the possibility to expand course offerings remain limited but possible. Bills said extending some classes into evening hours could be one option to provide opportunities to more students without needing more classrooms. 

“All of our space is full but we do have a lot of space after school,” Bills said. 

EDUCATION FOR STUDENTS AND PROFESSIONALS 

The school experienced a dramatic decline in full-time student enrollment last year but administrators expect those number to recover. Ward estimated over 14,000 students and professionals received instruction through Southern Tech last year, from full-time students to professionals needing continuing education. 

Roughly 5% of those learners, between 700 and 800 students, were enrolled in full-time programs. According to administrators, the rest were corporate and career development learners. “That’s more of those employees that come from Mercy, come for training, and then go back,” Ward said. 

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The school offers 22 programs to full-time students including new offerings in robotics and horticulture, and corporate training and development for over 160 business. Many of the professional development courses, some with only one or two class sessions, can be offered throughout the year and keep learners on campus even during the summer months. 

AEROSPACE OPPORTUNITIES 

Ward said members of the community could see work begin in coming months on a planned expansion of campus to house a new aviation maintenance department. The school received a $4 million grant from federal coronavirus relief efforts in March and will provide $1 million in matching funds for the upcoming facility, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

A new coffee shop on the Southern Tech campus Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. The newest addition to the Chaffin Student Center will feature coffee from a Tulsa-based company.

“The new Aerospace Airframe and Powerplant Certification Training facility will provide the tools, equipment, and space required to produce a workforce prepared for in-demand jobs to increase the resiliency of the regional economy in response to the pandemic,” said Dennis Alvord, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development, in a March statement.

While construction of the new facility is expected to only take about a year, any sort of programs will likely not be offered until 2023. Ward said a program director will still have to be hired to develop curriculum that would be accredited by organizations including the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The expansion means opportunities for the campus, according to Bills. Along with the recently announced $124 million joint project at the Ardmore Air Park, members of the community also have the potential to impact the future of aviation maintenance education. 

“Why are we doing seat time? Why are we looking at competancy-based? When you begin to ask those questions to entities such as the FAA, it really causes them to think. So we can work collaboratively with them to really create a nice curriculum that has more purpose and more efficiency built into it.”