By David Magee
John T. Edge's latest book, "The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South" will be released May 17.
It is appropriate, really, that one of the most far-flung ideas to become a delightful reality in this region hatched at a Water Valley beer tasting and matured one month later during a Lafayette County fishing trip.
Almost two years have passed since friends Glen Evans of Oxford and Kagan Coughlin of Water Valley got together late one afternoon at Yalobusha Brewing Company to brainstorm possibilities.
About what, they weren’t sure. Just possibilities.
They had worked together at FNC, the Oxford-based mortgage solutions company where Evans serves as president, before Coughlin left his job as a director of product management to become a Water Valley entrepreneur with his wife, Alexe, revitalizing downtown buildings and opening BTC Grocery.
Evans and Coughlin agreed during the beer tasting that companies like FNC, a national leader in its field, were always in need of technology talent, needing to fill high wage jobs like software developers.
They also agreed that Mississippi has a lot of talented young people full of potential who don’t attend college after high school graduation because their families don’t have the money and because they aren’t sure what kind of job it would lead them to anyway.
Their big idea that bubbled up at Yalobusha Brewery during the brainstorm was starting a vocational school in Mississippi — Water Valley to be specific — that provides computer programing training (coding) for free to smart, but under-advantaged high school graduates from the area so they can land $60,000 developer jobs locally or regionally after program completion.
“For a student who comes from a family with no college degrees and no higher wage jobs, this opportunity could change a family’s economic trajectory just like that,“ Coughlin says, snapping fingers.
Evans and Coughlin let this big idea ferment for a month, just to make sure it wasn’t the beer talking. They then heard the early-spring call that many locals annually hear in these parts when white bass make a run up the Yocona River to spawn.
Early giveaways the time is right are when forsythia blooms brightly and daffodils have climbed firmly up from muddy banks to claim a solid yellow crown. But if one misses those signs they can simply judge by the activity around Grinder’s Switch, since when the trucks crowd in, the white bass are running, able to be caught by the dozens from a drifting boat or by walking along the approachable shoreline.
All it takes is some chartreuse jigs and spare time.
But for two hours Evans and Coughlin walked the Yocona banks with poles and jigs and they didn’t catch a single fish. They don’t recall really trying, since all they could think about is starting the coding academy in North Mississippi, and bringing their month-old concept to fruition.
The ideas came quick and the concept seemed doable. The fast-track vocational school will be a non-profit, they decided. It will serve students from the commutable region, a 50-mile radius around Water Valley, including Oxford, Lafayette, North Panola and Pontotoc.
The training will be free to all students, they determined. Lunches will be provided. If students can’t afford the commute, a stipend will be given. And, students don’t apply – they have to be recommended by high school teachers and selected.
Students will start training right after high school graduation and be employable for a level one-developer job 12 months later. Helping graduates gain employment will be the primary objective.
It will be called Base Camp Coding Academy, they decided.
“We kept looking for a reason not to do it,” Coughlin said. “We couldn’t find any.”
They reached out to education programs including Teach for America for advice, and they talked to teachers.
“The best advice we got is that students should be nominated to this program by teachers,” Evans said. “Nobody will apply. They will be nominated.”
Evans and Coughlin put initial seed money in and established a board of directors – mostly FNC employees who understood the opportunity and need. But they needed startup up funding, just like a business might need. The sum: Half a million dollars for the first three years.
Philanthropists Dickie and Diane Scruggs were the first founding sponsors to sign on.
Word of the new vocational school reached Northwest Community College’s David Campbell, district dean of career, technical and workforce education. He approached Evans and Coughlin about joining forces, and had funding to help pay for Base Camp’s teachers and mentors.
“That was big,” Evans said of Northwest’s participation. “They had the vision of what is good for Mississippi.”
Other sponsors joined to get Base Camp up and running, including C Spire, Renasant Bank, FNC/Core Logic, and The John Palmer Foundation. Several more are still needed, however.
Since no program like this exists in the country – a free program for youth to learn computer programming – both selling its benefits to nominated students and interviewing the students to find the most qualified presented a challenge.
Non-paid board members visited schools for interviews while instructors were hired and more than a dozen made the cut after months of work meaning North Mississippi’s Base Camp Coding Academy was ready to launch.
The initial students – the majority are minorities and females, when both groups are combined – came from Oxford, Lafayette, North Panola, Pontotoc and Water Valley schools.
“This is a year-long program so it meant launching June 1 when most of these high school students didn’t graduate until the end of May,” Evans said. “It required quite a commitment since these classes meet 40 hours a week. They didn’t get any break at all.”
Since the school is a startup the founders had all sorts of contingency plans in plan – “our careers have been built on mitigating risk,” Coughlin said – but it has gone more smoothly than even the even they imagined in a best-case scenario that day at the Yalobusha Brewery.
Students are ahead of the projected course work plan, and by the early months they were already doing computer programming like designing games like Tetris and websites as projects.
But, even the best plans can’t have a contingency for everything. So when Base Camp student Dustin Buice died unexpectedly in a weekend car accident in early November, the close-knit vocational school was shaken.
“Grief counseling is one of the things we didn’t expect,” Coughlin said. “(Buice) wanted this program so badly and worked hard at it. He would have been the first in his family to graduate from a program beyond high school.”
In the second half of the inaugural yearlong program Water Valley’s Base Camp Coding Academy is both preparing for its second year and preparing to help its graduates find jobs.
“The program is going so well,” Evans said. “But our true success will be determined by these students getting jobs, since our primary objective is creating a career path.”
Evans and Coughlin are optimistic, since students are showing they can learn, and excel. They also know that companies like FNC, Renasant, C Spire and others in the region need talent.
That’s certainly what the students are counting on. A visit late one November day to the classroom on the second floor above BTC Grocery finds them hard at work six months into the experience, grinding away at another day of learning.
“They understand there should be reward for the effort,” Evans said. “That’s what we’re eager to see happen. We think this can become something big for them. There are lots of jobs out there. But it starts with this first class getting hired.”
Then, the big idea that birthed in a brewery and matured on a fishing trip will have blossomed, opening up to a new realm of possibility in Mississippi.