MCGHEE TYSON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Tenn. -- The U.S. Air Force's enlisted professional military education center in East Tennessee looked back at the Fiscal Year 2020 this week to reflect on the adversity, innovations, and accomplishments, perhaps like no other during its 52 years.
The Chief Master Sergeant Paul H. Lankford Enlisted Professional Military Education Center is the Air National Guard's total force PME center that graduated thousands of students since last October, despite pandemic restrictions.
They reported 1,411 NCOA graduates and 397 Airman Leadership School graduates during the fiscal year. That involved 11 classes, including six newly designed virtual in-resident-remote EPME classes and five traditional EPME classes.
"What has impressed me most has been the fact that through all these different adversities, we have increased the professionals coming through this schoolhouse," said U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Steven Durrance, the commandant.
Those students earned 9,437 Community College of the Air Force credit hours, including 7,055 credit hours from NCOA and 2,382 credit hours from ALS. The NCOA graduates were 754 Airmen from the regular Air Force, 506 Airmen from the Air National Guard, and 151 Airmen from the Reserve. The ALS graduates were 12 Airmen from the regular Air Force, 349 Airmen from the ANG, and 33 Airmen from the Reserve.
That accomplishment is notable when considering the campus's suspension of all classes in March. Their last physical EPME graduation was in mid-February, and the EPME Center's Airmen dealt with the personal costs of the pandemic and working from home. The Center also changed about 21 percent of its staff in scheduled reassignments, to include eight new instructors.
Chief Durrance noted a pride in that the schoolhouse remained recognized as one of the best by a higher command and Airmen assigned.
"When we get recognized from the Barnes Center as one of the best, doing it right, with a Highly Effective rating, that says a lot. And then you couple that with the climate survey we just had, people enjoy being here," said Chief Durrance. (The September survey recorded a 90 percent overall favorability rate from a 72 percent staff and faculty response rate.)
The EPME center has 38 faculty, including 19 enlisted Airmen from the regular Air Force, 18 from the National Guard, and one from the Reserve. Three additional support staff manage scheduling and operations. The Center is part of the more extensive training and education center on McGhee Tyson ANG Base, the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center.
Amid spreading COVID and initial quarantine response, the Center shifted its in-service training platform to train 26 instructors on a new NCOA curriculum at home by using online preparation groups.
"That's the entire NCOA staff learning a brand new curriculum and then immediately after that rolling into 'let's turn both curriculums into something we can deliver virtually,'" said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Brian Smith, acting director of education. "We could not have accomplished it without the whole team working together, and that's what made the difference this year."
In developing the inaugural VIR-R classes, instructors learned television-studio camera skills in late Spring from TEC's broadcasting experts, including reading from a teleprompter. TEC University's television studio kept constant manning through the summer, if not recording the instructors' more than 40 video lessons and introductions, then broadcasting virtual graduations for six classes across the total Air Force through social media.
The live-stream broadcasts allowed tens of thousands of family members, friends, and service members to celebrate the achievement from their homes, as well as post congratulatory comments.
"It has been a massive effort with a lot of challenges," said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Beiting, NCOA superintendent, in a summer news interview.
The Center first focused on the new curriculums and coursework revisions while isolated. They formed into different online groups through meeting apps. Then they converted roughly 247 classroom curriculum items into virtual learning.
Leading up to the live online classes, the staff prepared themselves with more than 400 training hours on innovative virtual learning platforms.
Their steady work culminated in a significant accomplishment for the U.S. Air Force in EPME. By the numbers, Sergeant Smith figured that Lankford Center is saving the U.S. Air Force millions of dollars if the students did not attend EPME and from funds unspent if students had learned in classrooms.
As if a global pandemic and a changing curriculum were not enough, the EPME center earned a HIGHLY EFFECTIVE score by the U.S. Air Force's Thomas N. Barnes Center for Enlisted Education during a summer Program Management Review. The review included more than 10,000 documents and 39 inspectable line items.
The Center hosted a November visit from the Barnes Center Commander, U.S. Air Force Col. Kathryn A. Brown, and her staff assigned at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Building those relations combined with the reorganization of their training structure served them well during the review, said Sergeant Smith in an August news interview. The EPME Center formed three teams that combed through approximately 4,000 records and corrected 60 errors.
The faculty and staff also took the time to self-develop and logged 642 professional development hours during the fiscal year.
They exercised through shared online fitness sessions while in home isolation. They held a virtual tactical pause to ensure a sense of belonging. They ran the U.S. Air Force's virtual marathon together, locally, using social distancing. They studied and read on a multitude of subjects and courses. Some wrote commentary articles that addressed U.S. Air Force key challenges, like Inclusion, Innovation, Resiliency, Respect, and Wellness.
EPME students and instructors that attended classes on campus before March volunteered with the Medic Regional Blood Center, Knox and Blount County animal shelters, the Humane Society, Habitat for Humanity, and the Smoky Mountain Heritage Center. Hundreds of hours in community service.
"I can't imagine it to have gone any smoother," said Senior Master Sgt. Juan P. Castro, EPME director of operations. "The pandemic and this virtual platform, there has not been a drop in the quality of education we provide, or in our service, and it has been a challenge. I think it goes to show the resiliency that our team here has as well as the entire TEC that stepped up to make us successful."
Sergeant Castro noted that the Center began its first classes for FY 2021 last week, with 266 students in NCOA and 116 in ALS from across the total U.S. Air Force. Goals include 14 EPME classes in the coming 12 months, all through virtual learning.
Leaders said that faculty still miss their classrooms, with the irreplaceable physical energy and face-to-face communication. But until desks and whiteboards return, they will take advantage of virtual learning avenues and tackle any challenges to come.