KINGSPORT - Eastman Chemical Co. will invest more than $1 million over the next few years to help boost the math abilities of local teachers, and ultimately, help area students prepare for the challenges of the workplace.
At a breakfast with community leaders Wednesday morning at MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, Eastman Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Brian Ferguson announced the new Eastman Scholar Mathletes, an initiative designed to enhance the professional development of local elementary and middle school math teachers in Kingsport and Sullivan and Washington counties.
Ferguson said most teachers in elementary classrooms today graduated college with just two courses in math.
"Yet we expect these same teachers to lay the fundamental principles and underlying concepts of math to these students," Ferguson said.
"We want to make sure that teachers understand both the content and concepts needed to teach most effectively," he said.
Through the new initiative, participating teachers will undergo a two-week intensive math workshop at East Tennessee State University during the summer. Those who complete the course will get a $600 stipend plus $700 in classroom supplies. Their $1,000 tuition will also be paid.
In all, Eastman will invest $2,300 per participating teacher per year in the next five to seven years.
Meanwhile, participating school systems will be required to hire a math specialist who will continue to work with teachers throughout the year to reinforce and build on what they learn in the math workshop, Ferguson said.
School systems in Kingsport and Sullivan and Washington counties will participate, since they already have math specialists in place. Other area school systems could also join in if they hire math specialists.
"This is the kind of program I like because it calls for a little bit from everybody. The teachers have to commit two weeks in the summer ... the school systems have to commit to hiring a math specialist ... and Eastman commits the money," Ferguson said.
Ultimately, Eastman is hoping the initiative will produce better-qualified job candidates for it and other area businesses and industries.
Ferguson said Eastman will hire about 400 operations employees this year in Kingsport, and another 400 each year until 2010, based on current projections. The company employs 11,000 people worldwide, including 7,500 in Kingsport.
But finding qualified candidates to fill those jobs is an issue. Following Wednesday's breakfast, Ferguson told the Times-News that Eastman typically interviews nine to 10 job applicants before finding one with sufficient qualifications and skill sets.
"So far we have been able to fill our needs, but when we look at the pipeline, the pipeline alarms us," Ferguson said.
The problem is twofold. First, he said, operations employees are required to have more technical skills today than ever before.
Meanwhile, statistics show that high school students are falling behind grade level in math and science. Coincidentally, the nation is producing fewer and fewer scientists and engineers compared with other countries.
"This is about the competitiveness of our country," Ferguson said. "I could quote you endless statistics about how many scientists and engineers other countries are cranking out and how many we're cranking out. It's not in our favor. You just wonder how long you can sustain your situation if that gap continues to be there."
Locally, he said, students from 11 area high schools in the region recently averaged less than 20 on the math portion of the ACT college entrance exam and less than 21 on the science portion of the test.
Ferguson said the results "are alarming to say the least."
"Keep in mind that most four-year institutions require at least a 21 composite score, and in reality, at least a 24 just to gain admittance," he said.
Moreover, nearly half of local students tested in algebra I on the Gateway scores were not performing at grade level, while a whopping 70 percent of students testing in pre-algebra performed below grade level.
"Our region must get serious and get dedicated to improving our educational system's ability to teach math and science to our kids, and we don't think there's any time to waste," Ferguson said.
He said Eastman will track the progress of its new initiative for results. He said the region's ability to prepare its students for the future is important to attract and retain companies for economic development.
And the region's educational base is also a factor in retaining existing corporate headquarters. If Eastman, for instance, can't attract and retain high-level executives because of shortfalls in the region's educational system, the company may consider moving its corporate base from the area.
"As long as we can meet those needs, the bias would be to stay. But if we can't meet those needs, we don't have a choice. We have to compete," Ferguson said.
He said the region has other challenges to tackle as well, particularly in health care costs. Eastman spent more than $90 million on direct health care costs last year, and the majority - or $72 million of that - was spent right here in the region.
"We need to work together to improve the overall health of our community," Ferguson said. "We also see a real need for more collaboration between our region's health care providers."
He said Eastman applauds the CareSpark initiative, an electronic information system that enables health information to be shared among health care providers in the region.
"I want to challenge all of our health care leaders to work together constructively to improve the system," said Ferguson. "Not just for Eastman, but for all of us."