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Eastman's Ferguson urges focus on education

Sharon Hayes • Mar 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Eastman Chemical Co. may face tough choices during the economic downturn, but it won’t make snap short-term decisions that would jeopardize its long-term growth, and neither should the leaders of the region.

That’s what Eastman Chairman and CEO Brian Ferguson told regional leaders Wednesday at the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center.

“In today’s economic environment, a knee-jerk reaction is to hunker down, stop spending, focus on today and forget about tomorrow. Some of that may be necessary to an extent, but you can’t put off the future. It will come, and we need to be ready. That’s why we cannot put off or shortchange education,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he strongly supports the state’s efforts to increase graduation requirements in public schools. Those tougher standards will take effect for current eighth-grade students, who will be required to take more rigorous math and science classes to receive their diplomas in 2013.

Ferguson said the stricter standards may actually lead to an increase in high school dropout rates for a few years “until these foundations and support systems are well established within our school systems.”

“Simply put, there is a chance for things to get worse before they get better,” Ferguson said. “If they do, I expect folks will wrongly interpret the increase in dropout rates to be a sign of failure on the part of schools. The lag time needed to build up these foundations will no doubt create significant challenges for our educators and schools. However, we must stand firm that these changes are essential to help our students compete in a global economy.”

Ferguson said Eastman is supporting local educational efforts in several ways, including its Scholar Mathletes program, a collaboration with East Tennessee State University that provides professional development in math for selected elementary and middle school teachers.

In Eastman’s GEM4STEM program, more than 200 company employees mentor students in area schools in math- and science-related areas.

Eastman has also dedicated funds to construct the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing in downtown Kingsport.

And Eastman has created a new work force development scholarship to provide technical education students with financial help in pursuing educational opportunities.

“These are just some of the ways Eastman is showing our support and working to make a difference,” Ferguson said. “I encourage each of you to find ways in which you can do the same. Collectively, we can raise the bar for all children across the region and ensure for ourselves a strong pipeline of qualified and highly trained employees who will lead us into the future.”

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