Brien Poffenberger: Education, economic development in county go hand in hand


Even the most cynical critic would have found it difficult to view last week’s news about education in Washington County as anything but positive. Hagerstown Community College (HCC) celebrated its most recent milestone with not one but three marquee events and the Chamber of Commerce celebrated teachers for the difference they make in the classroom and beyond. The message last week was clear: Washington County equates education with economic opportunity, and our community knows both how to reward today’s success and how to prepare for tomorrow’s.

The week started with Gov. O’Malley’s visit to HCC for the opening of its science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) building. The governor’s visit linked Hagerstown with the larger, statewide emphasis on the skills and jobs of the 21st century. 

Maryland is second to none in biotechnology and cyber-security and has begun to focus more heavily on the jobs they create. The University System, for example, has launched a technology transfer partnership between College Park and the University of Maryland (Baltimore) that could serve as a statewide template. HCC sees the world the same way, and it draws a straight line from 1). the STEM classroom to 2). technology-based start-up companies to 3). job creation in Washington County.  Education has reinvented itself as economic development. 

While all this was going on at HCC, the Chamber of Commerce hosted the annual Washington County Teacher of the Year award — a different kind of celebration, perhaps, but one with no less energy and no less connection to the business of business in our community. Our Chamber is the only one in Maryland so actively involved in its local Teacher of the Year program. And for good reason. 

The Chamber recognizes that successful businesses require an educated work force (read successful students) and, so by extension, successful teachers. In short, what we do depends on what they do. The skills and the talents and the creativity that every business needs begin in the classroom.

The week ended back at HCC. Acknowledging the milestone that the STEM building represents, the college buried a time capsule to be opened by a future generation who will doubtless enjoy the increased prosperity that this new vision of education will bring to Washington County. Again, education as economic opportunity.

Do we still have lots of work to do? Absolutely. Statewide, high school graduation requirements do not quite align with first-year college expectations, and business leaders complain about their ability to find qualified workers — even with record unemployment. Locally, we have yet to permanently fend off the threats to the University System of Maryland Center (USMH), and students, teachers and administrators struggle to find the right allocation of resources across the school district. Still, we are having the right conversations in Washington County, asking the right questions, martialing the right resources. If ever there was a time to be optimistic about education in our community, this is it.

Educators in Washington County deserve our collective congratulations, not just for last week’s celebrations but for a string of successes that promises to keep education in Washington County at the very forefront of economic development in Maryland.

Brien Poffenberger is president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

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