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New Central Arizona College head likes what she sees

She meets with various staff members on Wednesdays at lunch, she said — not to hear the daily minutia — but to hear what they think about CAC in general and what their vision of CAC is for the future.

“I enjoy the perspective because everyone has a different one,” she said, “depending on what their past experiences have been, who they interact with, what some of their successes have been with the students.”

Helmich, previously a vice president, was named interim president to serve during an extensive search next year for someone to replace Dennis Jenkins, who retired last month. Jenkins had faced votes of “no confidence” from three employee groups.

She also is looking at what CAC is doing to bring its vision and mission alive.

“Our vision statement is about being a leader of innovative learner success,” she said. “And when we look at learner success, we really have to look at what is helping students learn and what is creating a barrier to students learning.”

CAC is looking at the length of classes, she said. It has Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes that last 50 minutes; Tuesday-Thursday classes that last 75 minutes; and evening classes that meet once a week for three hours.

“Is that helping students to learn?” she asked. “I’ve asked for a study of our current classes to see — is there a significant difference in student achievement, based on the length of class?”

She is looking at instructional methods. Enrollment reports show that distance learning is growing at the fastest pace. “But are students successful?” she asked. They may be taking an online class because it is convenient. She wants to make sure they are successful, too.

She is looking at support services. “Do we have the right services in place to make sure that students are successful?”

She is looking at student preparation. “What can we do to make sure that students are ready for a college-level education when they come here, so the college does not have to do as much remediation as we are currently doing?”

CAC is trying to determine which students need remedial classes, she said. Are they recent high school graduates or are they adults who have been out of school for several years? If returning students are having problems, CAC may need to offer more brush-up workshops instead of semester-long remediation classes. It just received a $5 million federal grant to examine the issue.

Helmich said CAC also is looking at workforce development.

“With the economy the way it is, everyone is looking for a job,” she said. “So how might CAC give the local community an advantage?”

The college was lucky to have two grants from the U.S. Department of Labor to provide skills in the solar energy field, she said. It also has a health information technology grant. “Students are getting jobs before they even finish that program, there is so much demand for those students.”

CAC is working with economic development organizations to predict which businesses are likely to move into Pinal County, she said, and which skills its residents will need.

Helmich said CAC also is looking for practical ways to give its students workforce experience in their fields before they graduate. Northeastern University in Boston does it. Pinal County businesses like the idea.

“The other piece of our vision is about providing educational opportunities in our diverse communities,” she said.

That means opportunities that fit the community. CAC soon will open new campuses in Maricopa and San Tan Valley, she said. CAC already knows it will bring a culinary arts program to Maricopa, which attracts winter visitors to its restaurants and resort.

“And with Banner Health a block away, we can’t ignore health care,” she added. “Ak-Chin has asked for a way for their elders to remain in their homes when they are ill. I think that’s our visiting nursing program. I think health care is going to be big there, too. It’s big all over the county, really.”

For the last four years, CAC has focused on bringing educational opportunities to every community in Pinal County, she said. Now it is looking at student retention and completion.

“It doesn’t help you to get students into higher ed if they don’t stay and complete their goals,” she said. So CAC is looking at what it needs to do to make sure that happens.

“These are all things that I see as needs,” Helmich said. “I like to problem-solve, so I like to see where the needs are, close the gaps and solve the problems.”

Helmich said she was a first-generation college student.

“I know that I had plenty of needs when I went to college. And if it wasn’t for the fact that I made connections, I would not have stayed. It would have been so easy for me to get in my car and drive it home. But I made the connection. Somebody reached out to me, and we all have to do the same thing to the students who arrive at our doorstep. They come with a lot of anxiety. They don’t really know the processes. And we really do need to help them to figure those out.”

Helmich said CAC has a lot of talented people, and when they know what the challenges are, they are more than willing to collaborate to solve them.

“For example, we knew that if we didn’t get going and get going fast with accreditation, we were going to miss the boat,” she said.

She sent a message to faculty and staff: Re-accreditation was the most important thing the college had to focus on this year.

So many faculty and staff volunteered to help create the accreditation document, Helmich said. “I think we’re going to be just fine. ... It’s really a wonderful feeling to know that if you have a challenge, you put it out there and people volunteer to come forward. I really do appreciate that.”

To help keep staff informed of the issues facing the college, she created a staff newsletter, “The President’s Pencil.”

If everybody knows what the issues are, “they can get in the boat and row with me,” she said.

“We need to realize that CAC is the people that are here,” she said. “That’s all CAC is. We don’t make a product. We’re not any kind of industry other than a knowledge industry. ...

“Slowly we’re getting there as people are not feeling threatened, and they are feeling better about the successes that the institution is having. I really feel like there is a lot of innovation and a lot of great things happening here. We just haven’t brought it front and center.”

CAC was named in the top 100 institutions in the United States that graduate students with associate degrees, she said as an example.

“That is a big deal! We look really good in terms of how other institutions look in the state, in terms of gradation rates, success of students in developmental ed, students completing the goals that they set out to complete. Now, can it be better? It can always be better.”

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