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Professional Development

Professional Development

Kimberly Quinonez

After getting some help rising out of poverty, Kimberly Quinonez is now in the business of helping others.

Kimberly Quinonez says she’s always had a passion for helping people, and a desire to make doing so a career.

But for most of her life, she was the one needing help.

A native of South Carolina, she grew up in a life of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and a sixth-grade education, and was desperate for a way out — and up — from all that.

After getting clean and moving to Western Mass., she completed her high-school equivalency at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) at age 43 and enrolled in the school’s two-year associate-degree program in social work. And while still earning that high-school equivalency, she told BusinessWest, she met Wally Soufane, social work specialist at Elms College, who became a mentor and essentially put her on a path to the bachelor’s degree-completion program offered at the school.

Completing that program, and the associate degree before that, were stern challenges, she said, noting that there were several times when she wanted to quit because the combination of life and school seemed like too much. But she persevered, with help (there’s that word again) from Soufane and others who helped provide her with the will to carry on.

“I kept on and kept on; I had some discouraging moments, but I just couldn’t give up because this was something that I really wanted for myself,” she said. “And I really like helping people.”

This past May, she completed that program and was among the speakers at Elms’ commencement ceremonies, her story riveting those in attendance. Today, she’s employed at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department as a care coordinator and counselor, while also working toward a master’s degree in social work at Springfield College.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them. If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Her story touches on many elements of the bachelor’s degree-completion programs at Elms, said Walter Breau, executive dean of the college’s Kirley School of Continuing Education — everything from its ability to help non-traditional students set and achieve goals to the way its administrators and instructors work with students to help them overcome challenges and complete their degrees.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them,” he went on. “If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Social work is one of the more popular programs at the Kirley School, said Breau, adding that others, many of them offered online, include computer information technology and security (CITS), computer science, healthcare management, speech-language pathology assistant, management and marketing, psychology, and RN-BSN.

Overall, there are now roughly 200 individuals enrolled in continuing-education (CE) programs at Elms, roughly 20% of the undergraduate population, said Breau, a veteran administrator at the college who recently took the helm at the Kirley School, noting that the goal is to grow enrollment to 300 and beyond.

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused on not only enrolling people in degree programs, but seeing them through to the finish line.
Staff Photo

And there is certainly some momentum with regard to enrollment, as the region’s community colleges, bolstered by the MassReconnect Program, which provides free tuition to those over age 25, are seeing their first real rise in enrollment since well before the pandemic.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its series spotlighting professional-development programs across the region with a visit to the Kirley School and an examination of how it can change lives, like Quinonez’s, in a profound way.


Grade Expectations

This past May, Elms’ School of Continuing Education was officially renamed the Sister Kathleen Kirley ’66 School of Continuing Education, following a donation to the school in her honor.

And the new name is quite fitting, said Breau, noting that Sr. Kathleen, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, now retired from the school, was director of Continuing Education at Elms from 1977 to 1990 and served as the dean of Continuing Education and Graduate Studies from 1990 to 1998.

“If you look at the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, their goal is to serve the community,” he noted. “And at some point, instead of just having the traditional programs where you come to campus Monday through Friday, they understood that there was a population of individuals we could serve in a different way.”

That was the genesis of continuing education at Elms, he said, adding that, for more than a half-century now, the school has continued to serve non-traditional students with a variety of programs aimed at helping individuals not only earn degrees, but forge careers in growing fields.

These include collaborations with the region’s community colleges, whereby students can earn bachelor’s degrees on the community-college campuses. Indeed, there are social work programs at Asnuntuck Community College, Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College, said Breau, noting that many who earn their bachelor’s degrees at those locations, and on the Elms campus as well, go on to earn a master’s degree and become a licensed clinical social worker in the Bay State.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits. You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

“We have many of our students at STCC, Asnuntuck, and here on campus go forward and get their MSW,” he said, adding that there is “more than enough demand” for individuals who have those credentials.

Other popular programs include RN-BSN and speech-language pathology assistant, he said, adding that there is growing demand in both fields, and especially nursing.

Elms has articulation agreements, more than 50 in all, with the area community colleges, Breau explained, noting that these partnerships help create what he called “seamless pathways” as individuals take the credits they earned while completing an associate degree and apply them toward a bachelor’s degree at Elms.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits,” he noted. “You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

There are many such signs, he went on, adding that one point of emphasis at the Kirley School is to not simply merely get people enrolled in the various degree programs, but to see them through to completion.

And completion can be challenging, Breau said, noting that more than 75% of those enrolled in CE programs at Elms are 25 and older, which means they’re likely dealing with a number of life matters, such as work and family.

“They’re an older population who have decided, for one reason or another, that they want to fit in coursework with work, family, and other obligations,” he explained. “Our goal is first to show that it’s possible, it’s accessible, it’s affordable. People can see the end point even before they start.”

After showing it’s possible, the school then helps make it possible, with everything from flexible start dates to initiatives to help them step back in if they happen to hit pause for whatever reason, to many forms of student support, such as a 24-hour tutoring program.

Quinonez has seen these efforts to provide support up close and personal.

She said those at Elms were constantly supporting and “checking up on me” while she was in school. And they still do, months after she graduated.

“They still reach out to me today and say, ‘Kimberly, how’s it going?’” she told BusinessWest. “Elms changed me; I grew up and matured a lot — Elms College became my parents.”


Bottom Line

Today, Quinonez is working toward another degree at Springfield College and expects to complete that work in May. She said her time at Elms didn’t just help her find a career — instead of a job — but it instilled in her the desire to continue to reach higher and position herself to help people in more ways.

That’s what Sr. Kathleen Kirley had in mind when she laid the groundwork for today’s highly successful CE department at Elms.

The program has provided pathways to success and opened doors for people like Quinonez, who just needed a little help. And now they can help others.


Screen Test

Andy Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

Andy Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

Online learning isn’t a recent innovation, but in the world of continuing education for construction professionals, there aren’t many programs doing it — and few are doing it more effectively than the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass., says the association’s executive director. Its partnership with Holyoke Community College, he notes, is helping contractors get the training they need on a schedule that doesn’t take them off the worksite at critical times — and that benefits everyone.

Education, Andy Crane says, isn’t an afterthought for the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass. — it’s part of its mission statement.

“We get calls multiple times a day just asking questions, all over the spectrum,” said Crane, the HBRA’s executive director. “It could range from grading the soil to what you need on the roof to what kind of energy efficiency you need, and we’re expected to know that — and if we don’t, we know who to call. The fact that you can call and get an answer to your question is, I think, critical to the building trade in general. I think it validates us.”

On a broader scale, the association has long conducted continuing-education classes for construction supervisors and building professionals. The state requires 12 hours of classwork every two years, but the value of education goes beyond that, Crane said. Take, for example, a course on writing construction contracts.

“Very few people know how to do it properly, how to write a good contract,” he told BusinessWest. “There are contracts written on the back of napkins, or on lumber yard receipts. You’re collecting thousands of dollars from Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the contractor may or may not take off, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith have no avenue to turn to. Contracts are not just one-way — they protect me, but they protect you as well. Writing the proper contract and including the right licensing and registration numbers and insurance — it’s huge.”

In recent years, the state began allowing up to six of those 12 hours of classwork to be conducted online. Crane said the HBRA wanted to get into that — but wanted to do it right. So the association approached Ken White, dean of Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), to develop an online continuing-education platform that would compare favorably with any live classroom experience.

“More and more education and training is going from live classroom instruction to convenient online learning,” White said, adding that it makes particular sense in the construction world.

“We’re serving construction supervisors who are critically important individuals on the job; they’re overseeing everything that’s happening,” he explained. “To have them off site to go to a full-day program is a huge commitment of time that many times might not be in the best interest of the homeowner or the builder.

“HBRA has been doing premium classes for decades — of the six or seven home builders associations in the Commonwealth, they’re recognized by the rest of them as the best, by far,” he went on. “They asked us if there was a way to take their live instruction and create an online opportunity. That way, they can wrap their training and continuing development around their schedules, which may be weekends, evenings, and early mornings. And instead of taking it in these huge chunks of four hours or eight hours, they can do it an hour here and an hour there.”

HCC partnered with MindEdge Learning and MRW Connected to create a gateway and learning-management platform, White explained.

“We used a videographer to actually film all the live classrooms that take place here at the HBRA, with a three-camera setup. We keep the anonymity of the students because all you’re seeing are backs of heads; the focus is on the instruction. It’s filmed, it’s edited by the college to make sure it flows correctly, then it’s reviewed by the presenter, who is a builder or someone in the construction industry here in the Commonwealth. They look at it, and when it’s approved, it’s released to the public.”

The current course list is a deep dive into key construction issues: “Building an Airtight House,” “Energy Code Overview,” “Avoiding Costly Building Mistakes,” “Lead Safety Isn’t Just About Lead Paint,” and “Fall Prevention and Silica Exposure” are just a few of the topics.

“The reviews have been superlative,” White said. “They’ve picked some really great individuals who not only know their trade, but have great communication skills and keep up to date.”

He called continuing education the “lifeblood of decision making” for construction supervisors.

“On the job, if you make the wrong decision, people could get hurt, or something could leak, or something might not be up to code. They have a lot on the line. That’s why it’s important to have to be the best-educated, most experienced individuals in this profession. The college is just happy to be a part of it.”

Anytime, Anywhere

Crane said the HBRA is still teaching about 100 people a month at its headquarters in Springfield, but contractors are increasingly choosing the convenience of the online model.

“Some leave the job site and attend a live training,” White added. “But you can get an identical experience taking the same class online around your own schedule.”

Purchasing a class is as simple as logging on to the HBRA website, perusing course options, and paying for them via a secure checkout. A few minutes after payment is processed, the user receives an e-mail with a link to log onto a class at his or her convenience.

Since the online program began in the summer of 2017, it has seen 295 registrations through the portal, White noted, adding that the HBRA of Western Mass. is at the forefront of this type of education in the construction industry.

Ken White says HCC aimed to create an online platform that would be as well-received as the live classes the local HBRA is already known for.

Ken White says HCC aimed to create an online platform that would be as well-received as the live classes the local HBRA is already known for.

“They’re the only ones who have online learning that’s a live video capture of the actual classes, so what students are seeing is a very engaging, identical experience that they can take in smaller portions if they’d like. Whenever they stop, they can get back in back exactly where they left off. And at the very end, there’s a final examination with 20 multiple-choice questions they have to get right to get credit.”

Crane noted that questions need to be answered every 20 minutes or so, too, which ensures that the user actually watches the material.

“The problem with online classes, when they first came out, was that you could literally pay your fee and pay your kid five bucks to pass the test by sitting there doing this,” he said as he mindlessly pressed a button. “Because we’re considered leaders in the industry, we thought that was wrong, so we helped get the rules changed so that, if you want people to learn stuff, you have to create a platform that makes them learn. You take a certain portion of time, maybe 20 minutes, then you’re tested on that 20 minutes. When you pass, you move on to the next 20 minutes. So you get your six hours of credit, you actually have to do six hours.”

After passing the final exam, the user prints a certificate to send in to the state to renew their license.

It works well for many construction professionals, Crane added, though many still prefer to be in a live classroom.

“You can take 12 hours live or do six live and six online. Personally, I don’t like doing things online. In fact, I hate it. I first came here because they offered classes here, downstairs in our conference room. I sat here for two days — there’s no tests when you do it this way; if you’re here 12 hours, they assume you learned.”

To feel the same confidence in an online platform, he said, “we had to build a program that follows the state’s protocol to a T, and make it tough so they’re actually learning something. Our classes are $90 for three classes. For-profit businesses will run that for $29, but they don’t care what you learn. They’re willing to wait for the hammer to drop and then close down, and they don’t care; they’ll just do it to somebody else.”

White said he works with other companies to provide various types of training, both live and online. “But in terms of this particular industry, we’re not aware of anyone else doing this. And the other plus is, with live training, most folks are local supervisors and builders. Online, we have folks as far as Cape Cod, Nantucket, even Cape Coral, Florida. It allows folks, wherever they’re located, to take this and not have to drive a half-day to get here and back and deal with traffic.”

Learning Curve

Even in its live classrooms, Crane noted, the HBRA of Western Mass. has been ahead of the curve.

“If other associations do it, they go get a professor at a college or some local professional and rent a room at the Holiday Inn and run a class,” he said. “Nobody I’m aware of has an online product. We’re the only ones out of the Home Builders Association running an online program. There are bootleg courses online, being taught by people in Arkansas and Canada and California at half the cost, but the content is nowhere near as professional as ours is.”

White said he was impressed by what he saw when he first attended a class in Springfield.

“I was really blown away because it was very professional and intensive, with an incredible amount of information, a lot of interaction between student and instructor, a lot of passion, and all relevant information that helps business owners and construction professionals and supervisors in their day-to-day decision making, whether it’s dealing with OSHA or lead issues or whatever the case may be.

“When I went back to report to my vice president, Jeff Hayden, I told him the instruction is superlative. I said, ‘there’s a lot of engagement, it was interactive — this is perfect for live video capture.”

In the end, he said, HCC and the association have turned out a premium learning experience.

“And it’s due to the folks that Andy hires to teach,” White added. “They’re experts. This isn’t a sideline; it’s what they’ve been doing all their lives. They live this 365 days a year. So folks are really happy about the product the HBRA has put out, and we’re happy to have been selected to partner with them and create these models.”

Crane agreed. “This is a unique partnership that benefits consumers, clients of builders, the state — it benefits everyone who touches this product.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]