Education secretary hears of transportation, housing issues in Claremont visit

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona walks into River Valley Community College on Friday in Claremont. With him are River Valley President Alfred Williams and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona walks into River Valley Community College on Friday in Claremont. With him are River Valley President Alfred Williams and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. Jennifer Hauck / Valley News

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut participate in a roundtable discussion at the River Valley Community College in Claremont on Friday. The visit to the college was part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Investing in Rural America agenda.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut participate in a roundtable discussion at the River Valley Community College in Claremont on Friday. The visit to the college was part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Investing in Rural America agenda. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

River Valley Community College students Story Smith, left, Jennifer Mallet and Alexander Carpenter participate in a roundtable discussion.

River Valley Community College students Story Smith, left, Jennifer Mallet and Alexander Carpenter participate in a roundtable discussion. Jennifer Hauck

Mimi Rhines, a school counselor at Stevens High School, asks a member of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona'a security team if she could meet and have a photo with Cardona after a roundtable discussion on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Claremont, N.H. Rhines attended the discussion and was waiting afterward in hopes to meet Cardona. She was told he had a meeting to attend and would not be out for a while. Rhines said she could tell by the expression on his face the answer was no.  (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Mimi Rhines, a school counselor at Stevens High School, asks a member of U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona'a security team if she could meet and have a photo with Cardona after a roundtable discussion on Friday, Nov. 3, 2023, in Claremont, N.H. Rhines attended the discussion and was waiting afterward in hopes to meet Cardona. She was told he had a meeting to attend and would not be out for a while. Rhines said she could tell by the expression on his face the answer was no. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News

Published: 11-08-2023 6:27 PM

CLAREMONT — In a roundtable discussion with the nation’s education chief, community college students in the Upper Valley said that access to housing and transportation are critically needed to maximize enrollment in rural education programs.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited River Valley Community College in Claremont on Friday to discuss vocational pathways for K-12 students and technical education programs in rural communities.

Cardona, who visited the campus with New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, also attended practical demonstrations by students in the respiratory therapy and radiologic technology programs.

The programs, which provide a two-year educational path to licensure in a health care field, provide high school students with a viable option after graduation, Cardona said. These fields typically have a high demand for workers and enable students to enter the workforce without incurring significant student loans.

“Programs like these at River Valley highlight what we want to see across the country,” Cardona said in an interview. “We want to see students get engaged (in career education) early, we want them to have job and career prospects when they finish school and we want to make sure that the ecosystem of education is working together.”

Participants in the roundtable discussion with Cardona included Edelblut, River Valley President Alfred Williams, hospital administrators from Dartmouth Health and Valley Regional Hospital, and students from River Valley health care programs.

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Cardona stressed the importance of collaboration between K-12 schools, colleges or trade programs and regional employers to increase the options for high school graduates. He cited examples such as Running Start, a New Hampshire program that enables high school students to take community college courses for dual-credit.

“I want our students to graduate with options,” Cardona told the roundtable participants.

Notably, only around 20% of River Valley students are recent high school graduates, according to Williams, who said the median student age is 29.

Story Smith, of Hartland, ran an educational program for at-risk youth before enrolling at River Valley, where she recently earned an associates degree to be a physical therapy assistant. Smith said she decided to change career paths when her youth program was facing funding cuts.

“I took it as an opportunity to do something different,” Smith told the panelists.

Prior to his enrollment, Alexander Carpenter, a first-year student in the radiologic technology program, was working at a hospital in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Carpenter said he enrolled in the River Valley program to advance his career in health care.

Jennifer Mallet, a first-year respiratory therapy student, enrolled at River Valley after graduating from Fall Mountain Regional High School in June 2022.

“I came out of high school not knowing what I wanted to do,” Mallet said. “But at River Valley I went from not even knowing what respiratory therapy is, to (finding something) that I want to do for the rest of my life.”

A day before Cardona’s visit to Claremont, President Joe Biden announced that over $5 billion in investments have been allocated to five U.S. Department of Agriculture initiatives in an effort to support economic development in rural communities. This spending includes $1.7 billion to support environmentally-beneficial agriculture practices, $1.1 billion in grants for rural infrastructure projects, $2 billion to support rural economic-development initiatives, $274 million for high speed internet infrastructure and $145 million to expand renewable energy projects.

“In our rural communities there is so much talent and opportunity but we have to support them differently,” Cardona said in an interview.

The students taking part in the roundtable all said that transportation is the greatest barrier to attending River Valley. Though River Valley has three campuses — in Claremont, Lebanon and Keene — many students commute hours to attend, they said.

“Very few of us lived within a half an hour of River Valley,” Smith said.

The long commutes are due to the fact that options are limited. River Valley, for example, is the only school in New Hampshire or Vermont offering a physical therapy assistant program, according to River Valley’s website.

And only two New Hampshire community colleges — River Valley and NHTI in Concord — have an accredited radiologic technician program, according to Radiology Schools 411, a national resource guide for radiology programs.

“I drive an hour and a half to get here,” Carpenter said. “I’m lucky enough to have a vehicle, but someone who doesn’t have access to transportation might find it difficult to have that access to an education.”

Remote technology has helped ease some of the commuting burden, Williams noted. Though students need to be in the classroom to practice with medical equipment, they can otherwise attend classes remotely. This has allowed students to reduce their campus visits to two or three days a week instead of five.

Patrick von Kannewurff, respiratory care manager at Dartmouth Health, said the Upper Valley housing crisis creates another barrier, as the lack of affordable housing options make it difficult for students to move closer to campus or a medical facility to practice their clinical work.

The roundtable participants also discussed the need to expand career education in K-12 schools to engage students at an earlier age with different vocational paths.

“Even in middle school, we have to expose our students early,” Cardona said. “College shouldn’t be a $40,000-a-year career exploration, yet it is in many cases.”

Patrick Adrian may be reached at padrian@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.