The Steps Community College Leaders are Taking to Help Arizona

Lee Lambert, Stacy Klippenstein, Darcy Renfro

Community college is a crucial piece of the education system for learners throughout Arizona, and an important tool to drive Arizona’s economy. As unemployment numbers continue to rise, more people are looking for ways to reskill and upskill. Community colleges become especially important in helping people prepare to enter the post-COVID workforce. We spoke to three community college leaders from across the state to hear what they and their institutions are doing to help students and communities during this time.

Lee Lambert is Chancellor of Pima Community College and serves on the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

Stacy Klippenstein is the President of Mohave Community College.

Darcy Renfro is Maricopa Community Colleges’ Chief Workforce and Economic Development Officer and chair of the Achieve60AZ Board of Directors.

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education?

Lee Lambert: For me, it’s the intersection of things that really have not been talked about: pandemic, industry 4.0, and race. The key is how these three actually come together and lay the groundwork for reimagining education, not only now but for the future of education, teaching, learning, and work.

Stacy Klippenstein: I think everyone is talking about the use of different modalities to teach via distance education. How do you Zoom? How do you do synchronous and asynchronous education? And, how do we better allow for virtual competency-based education, especially in career and technical education?

Darcy Renfro: We are learning that digital divide issues are more prevalent than previously understood. The pandemic has underscored deeper disconnects that are felt across a large range of learners from early grades through adults. Removing brick-and-mortar options for the entire population hits the less affluent and most vulnerable among us. While the new economy continues toward more reliance on technology to keep Arizona’s economy competitive, we must be thoughtful to ensure that we do not create even more gaps for populations where educational attainment is much lower than our state and national averages.    

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms? 

Lee Lambert: What we do comes down to people. The people piece will not change. What’s going to have to be rethought is how we as humans interact with technology. We need to make sure the human and the technology elements are fully integrated into the learner’s experience so that we can give students the optimal learning environment to succeed.

Stacy Klippenstein: Student services. How do we continue to support students in new ways online, through the application, registration, tutoring, student success, and advising process? Some of this will be done virtually, like how healthcare is moving to telehealth. 

Darcy Renfro: From the workforce development perspective, what has changed is the focus on short-term training and skill credentials that can help somebody either move to a better a job or get a job more quickly.

How do postsecondary institutions help current students prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession?

Lee Lambert: Today’s graduating students are not just living through a pandemic, they also lived through the Great Recession. They are living through an era approaching Great Depression levels, the reality of what happens when inequality persists and is not fully addressed in society. So this graduating class is actually in the best position to make the most sense of all of this because they’re living through it. As long as we help facilitate learning around this current reality, these students will become better leaders going forward, having lived through some of the most difficult challenges in recent memory.

Stacy Klippenstein: The people who are losing their jobs right now often do not have a postsecondary credential or degree. This is why we support the Achieve60AZ goal. There are industries waiting to pick back up once the economy begins to recover, and people are going to need a postsecondary education to get those jobs.

Darcy Renfro:   These are unprecedented times where we are seeing entire industry sectors practically decimated over a period of months. We have record unemployment, and job growth has been impacted unevenly across industries. Postsecondary institutions have an obligation to help students understand those shifts in the job market and direct resources toward areas where students will most likely find employment even in economic downturns. We know that a postsecondary degree or credential is valuable currency for all individuals in the job market. Working together to help support Arizona students and advance educational attainment needs to remain a top priority for all of us.

How do you think a recession and unemployment will affect opportunities for adult education?

Lee Lambert: Pre-COVID, there were lots of conversations occurring around the future of work and the need for individuals to skill, reskill, and upskill. We are talking about digital skills, social-emotional skills, higher cognitive skills, and the ability to be adaptable and flexible. None of that has changed because of the pandemic.

Stacy Klippenstein: Adults are looking at what their plan is for the future during a time of great uncertainty. Some adults now have an opening in their schedule because they are suddenly unemployed. Some just need more adult basic education services to get their GED. I think offering those types of opportunities now is critical.

Darcy Renfro: It’s very hard to tell right now. Historically, when the economy is good, our enrollments go down. When the economy is bad, our enrollments go up as people look to gain new skills and credentials. This recession seems different because of the pandemic and lack of clarity around safety and health. We’re not seeing the same patterns we have in the past.  At the same time, we are seeing more employers focusing on improving learning and growth opportunities for employees with an increased emphasis on specific skill credentials that are transferable between jobs. 

What has been the role of the pandemic in highlighting educational inequities? In what new ways do you think we will address educational inequities and challenges moving forward?

Lee Lambert: The pandemic has really shined a spotlight on the flaws of our system, and George Floyd’s murder has sparked a new level of race consciousness. So many people were already struggling pre-COVID, and now we’re seeing that struggle on television. The question is, what are we going to do now? Are people going to step up and address these inequities that have been happening in our society for a long time? It takes dollars and leadership to make a difference to inequities like closing the digital divide.

Stacy Klippenstein: One thing we have recognized is the work we can do for adults with no higher education and adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We are also focusing more on our Latino students. We’re making some new changes to the ways we teach, and the ways we connect with and serve all students. 

Darcy Renfro:   Access to technology is underscoring the resource divide for low-income individuals and families. We have a lot of students with food and housing insecurity that are doing everything they can to make a better life for themselves. Not having a physical school or resource to go to makes it much, much harder.  Entire communities need to face these hard truths and work together to close these gaps, coordinate supports, and align resources that will give everyone the chance to succeed. 

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality?

Lee Lambert: If our K-12 system and our higher education system could come together and really reimagine what the students’ experience ought to be, and we build a system around the learner, we could go a long way in terms of skills acquisition, closing educational attainment, and really getting to that goal of Achieve60AZ.

Stacy Klippenstein: We need to find new ways to get people industry-recognized credentials, certificates, and degrees necessary for the new workforce. We’re concentrating on adults because we think that that’s going to move the needle in our community. We’re always going to go after the high school market, the traditional student age market. But we have not been planning for the adult student market in Mohave County, and we need to fix that.

Darcy Renfro: There are two areas that seem most urgent. First, ensuring that high school seniors continue their education, and putting resources and energy into that transitional time. Second, supporting adults that have some college and no degree, particularly those who’ve been in the hospitality industry as that’s been hit the hardest. How do we help them transition into other fields, industry sectors and jobs, and get them the skills training and, in some cases, degrees that will enable them to do that?

How College Students are Feeling about Changes to Education Surrounding COVID-19 Pandemic

Roxana Figiel, Celso Bahena Jr, Betsy Muñoz

Students in every sector of education have been affected by the pandemic – having to transition suddenly to online learning, and many university students having to return home, sometimes with only a few days’ notice. Like many of us, these students are worrying what next semester will look like, and they’re left wondering if this will affect the job market they’ll enter after college. We spoke with three current college students from around Arizona to get some ideas on what they’re thinking about right now and where they are finding hope for Arizona’s future. We believe strongly that student voices need to be heard and valued – so we wanted them to be the first people we spoke to for our Road to Attainment series. We also wanted to ensure we were getting a wide range of voices and opinions, so we spoke with 3 students from different backgrounds including an adult learner– a critical population to reach for the achievement of our 60% educational attainment goal.

Roxana Figiel is a student at Arizona State University working toward a bachelor’s degree in public service and public policy.

Celso Bahena Jr is an adult student currently studying Logistics at Pima Community College.

Betsy Muñoz is a first-generation Mexican American college student studying public service and public policy at Arizona State University.

What have been the main challenges you or other students in your community have faced because of COVID-19? 

Roxana: When we suddenly moved to online classes, I could see that my professors were struggling. One class ended up using Zoom, which was a completely new tool for that professor. At first, with the constant adjustments and new online programs, it was overwhelming to figure out how the requirements for the classes had changed. 

Celso: Communication is more subtle than it was before. But there are some positives – email and online methods have made it a little bit easier to get in contact with professors. At work, I’ve been in contact with more people because, instead of only interacting with my direct supervisor, I have to email others, and have gotten more acquainted with the chain of command.

Betsy: One of the greatest challenges for my peers and me is being disconnected from each other and not being able to learn, study, or be together. Video chatting does help provide part of that connection, but it is not the same as communicating in-person. Another challenge has been accessing jobs, internships, or career experiences since these have become more limited and their formats have changed. 

What are you talking about now that was previously not talked about in education? What does this mean for the future of education?

Celso: There’s been a lot of talk about virtual hangouts and virtual classrooms. The availability of virtual learning means people can learn from anywhere. The future will be heavily technology-based. 

Betsy: We are talking about remote learning and what that means. There are students who do not have access to a computer or digital device, and this has affected their learning beyond the inequities already present in the education system. The future of education will need to address these challenges and identify strategies or innovative solutions toward closing this gap in ways we haven’t done before. 

What has changed in education that you think will remain when students eventually return to classrooms?

Celso: Online teaching methods are being honed in and perfected. The kinks will be worked out. When schools re-open, these methods will be implemented into the mainstream public school system. 

Betsy: The use of technology and the increased use of digital learning. The use of technology will continue to increase, and students will need to be prepared and have technology resources available to them.

How do current students need to prepare differently for graduation and work given a recession? 

Roxana: Honestly, I am worried about what the future will hold for graduates. This recession won’t be over anytime soon, and the consequences will affect future graduates as well. They will be going out into a world that has new rules. Our internships were canceled, jobs weren’t providing enough hours, and businesses were closing, leaving us without the necessary experience companies look for in potential employees. 

Betsy:  Students will need to think about options they may not have considered before, because their education and career pathways may look different. This recession may discourage students from enrolling in courses that require hands-on training or encourage students to continue their post-secondary education beyond a bachelor’s degree. It would be beneficial for all students to try to gain career-related experiences wherever possible to better prepare themselves for the workforce during this recession.   

Who is inspiring you in this challenging time and why?

Roxana: I think everyone has been an inspiration in these times. Seeing how each person decides to help themselves or others provides insight into what we value as individuals and as a society.

Celso: One of the people that continues to inspire me is the author, Christopher Hitchens. He always spoke about humanitarian values, how we must oppose aggression amongst each other, and instead look for the good in people, while enabling others to achieve that as well. 

Betsy: Seeing my nieces, who are between the ages of 6 and 9, continue their education from home and adapt to their new reality has been inspiring to me. I am also in awe of all the parents who are working from home and are trying to teach their kids at the same time. Or the parents who are working from home with little ones. Seeing all the teachers and my peers adjust to this new environment has been incredible to watch. Teachers made adjustments to their classes in such a short amount of time and students pushed themselves to continue their learning.

What do you think will be the best way for Arizona to Achieve60AZ given our new reality? What is your greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19?

Roxana: Many people don’t know that they qualify for help and support in obtaining a degree. Providing that information allows them to make long term decisions for their future. COVID-19 has brought many underlying issues to the surface with no way to sweep them under the rug. Inequities need to be addressed and adults will need to reconsider education.

Celso: Social media is now more indispensable than ever. Arizonans will hopefully be helped by social media and nudged in the direction of education.

Betsy: My greatest hope for education coming out of COVID-19 is for our education community to have the ability to provide more resources, identify strategies, and create solutions toward addressing the longstanding inequities in our system. There is no “one-size-fits-all” option for students.

The opportunity to rethink Arizona’s education system is now

Rachel Yanof, Executive Director, Achieve60AZ

Originally published on

There is a lot of talk about “returning to normal” and what that means, post-pandemic.

Over the past few months, in the scramble to move to online and distance learning, the challenges of our education system have been exposed like never before. As a former teacher, principal, school-system leader, and now head of an organization that supports the statewide goal to see 60 percent of Arizonans have a certificate or degree by 2030 – I propose that we can never go back to “normal” in education.

I laud educators for their tremendous work in this moment. They have shown that the system can be nimble and responsive, and make big things happen.

Now, we need to scale that change and build for the future, designing a system that addresses the most underserved and, ultimately, meets the needs of all students.

Arizona’s educational system has been wildly disrupted. It’s time to reimagine it. 

In my career, I’ve had to fit into the existing education box, then find ways to think outside of it. With that in mind, Achieve60AZ is launching a new blog series, “Road to Attainment,” expanding on what we’ve learned during this time from education, business, and community leaders, parents, and students.

We hope you’ll engage with us as we explore the possibilities, including:

Early start. What if school starts at age 3? Research shows an early start would position all students to achieve more through extended opportunity for play, access to healthy food, and learning social skills. Parents with stable childcare are able to work more and attend school to better their family’s economic status.

Year-Round Calendar. Other countries see better performance from students when they go to school year-round. As a teacher, I remember spending the first six weeks of every year reteaching from a summer off, exacerbated for students who are less likely to go to camp or without consistent access to books and computers. With a year-round model, students have stable access to food, counseling, and infrastructure basics like air-conditioning or heating, and internet. 

Extended school day. Right now, working parents must rely on family or pay for before- and after-school care in order to accommodate a 40-hour work week. A longer school day could integrate activities kids need: outside time or more recess, longer lunches so they really eat the veggies, regular art and music, and longer class periods for deeply-engaging projects and experiments.

Achievement-based learning. Currently, rules say a learner is “ready” when they have been in each class for a prescribed time. Why not, instead, create competency-based classes, work-based learning, and meaningful apprenticeships worth credit for high school and postsecondary students, at scale? This pandemic has taught us that learning is not a function of time, but mastery of content.

Employers as education leaders. Employers must rethink how they are investing in their workforce. Now is the time to push for innovative career training, expanded education benefits, and rethinking employees as lifelong learners – all changes that serve employees as well as the current and future needs of the workforce at large.

Taken individually, each of these changes helps increase opportunities for learning. The larger task is integrating many changes and designing a system that has the potential to dramatically change educational outcomes.

In the old normal, African-Americans, Latinx, and American Indian students still trail in all academic areas, as do students with special needs. Most distressingly, income is still the main determinate of educational success.

Big shifts are uncomfortable, but, if we all can forge ahead through the discomfort, and support our leaders when they do things differently, even bigger successes are the reward.

Our kids’ future will be defined by COVID-19 response 

I have spent a lot of time with my three young kids lately.  A lot. Their generation will be defined by our society’s response to COVID-19.

We must use this moment to lay the groundwork for a better future. Achieve60AZ exists to keep Arizonans focused on the ambitious education goals we have set for all learners.

Going back means we will not meet our Education Progress Meter goals — metrics that were set intentionally to get students on track for academic and career success.

Together, we can write an Arizona story that starts with a pandemic, but ends with every student achieving, every adult working, and our state thriving.  

Join the conversation at Let’s seize this opportunity and create a better normal, where Arizona is a leader in education and economic prosperity.

Rachel Yanof is the executive director of Achieve60AZ, an initiative of more than 150 organizations committed to achieving the goal of 60 percent of Arizona adults obtaining a postsecondary credential or degree by 2030.