Monday, January 8, 2018/Written by David Mekeel/Reading Eagle
The day after Dr. Anna D. Weitz took the reins as president of Reading Area Community College, the beautiful, brand-new Miller Center for the Arts opened its doors. That meant, officially, the center opened under her tenure.
"Timing is everything," Weitz joked recently, sitting at a round table inside her office and reflecting on her early days on campus. "Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart."
Of course, Weitz said, she didn't really have anything to do with creating the Miller Center. But in the 11 years that followed that opening ceremony, she would have plenty of chances to make her mark.
And 2017 was certainly proof of that.
As she prepares for her retirement this spring, Weitz looked back on a year filled with big changes and successes for RACC, as well as her more than a decade at the helm of the school on the eastern banks of the Schuylkill River.
Her leadership, in 2017 and beyond, has earned Weitz the title of the Reading Eagle's 2017 Education Newsmaker of the Year.
A new challenge
A dozen years ago, Weitz's knowledge of RACC, and Reading in general, was pretty minimal.
What she did know came from meetings of community college presidents from across Pennsylvania, which she attended as president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Cambria County.
Pennsylvania Highlands, at the time, was the newest and smallest of the state's community colleges. When she began her career there, the school resided in five rented sites around the county.
By the end of her half-decade there, that changed.
Under Weitz's leadership, Pennsylvania Highlands consolidated. A main campus was created inside a former high school building in Johnstown - Weitz is quick to laud the idea of not wasting money on building new buildings when you don't have to - and the college maintained one satellite campus.
"When I left, everything was secured," she said.
Weitz got wind of an opening across the state, and decided to give Reading a look. She put her name in the running for RACC's presidency, and became a finalist.
She toured the city, visiting with community leaders and meeting with the people of Reading. She was impressed.
"The community was so much more than I thought it would be," she said. "I was just so impressed with the energy and focus in the community."
Weitz was offered the RACC gig, accepting it in April 2007 and starting two months later. She moved to Wernersville - where she plans to stay after retiring - and quickly became smitten with Reading and Berks County.
"Within weeks I fell in love with this place," she said.
What's not to love, she asked? It's a community filled with generosity - featuring one of the highest-fundraising United Way branches in the state - as well as a "richness of diversity."
"It's just a very exciting place to be," she said.
A thrilling final act
When Weitz took on the presidency at RACC, she was fairly certain it would be her last stop. And she wanted to make sure she didn't leave anything on the table.
One of her first plans was to maximize the use of the new Miller Center, as well as the Schmidt Training & Technology Center that had opened shortly before.
The Schmidt Center, she said, offered a unique opportunity. Traditionally, technology programs at community colleges aren't credit courses. Instead, they're designed to train workers for a specific career.
"I didn't want kids to have to make a fake choice," she said. "I wanted the Schmidt Center to be both."
So Weitz pushed for credit programs to be layered into the traditional programming, allowing students to both prepare for a career and earn a degree at the same time.
Getting use out of the Miller Center, Weitz said, was easy. Pushing the credit for the center's success elsewhere, she marveled at what it has become.
From the "get go" it has been a place that both draws professional performers and offers opportunities for young learners, she said.
And while RACC does not yet offer a theater major, Weitz said the school has added some courses that utilize the Miller Center and get students into its seats.
"I think not enough young people go to live performances," she said.
Along with the new additions at RACC, the start of Weitz's tenure also coincided with a troubling, nationwide trend. Schools across the country found themselves battling dropping enrollment numbers, which in turn tightened the financial screws on institutions.
Weitz has fought to buck the trend.
Over the past several years, RACC has put in place procedures and programs to streamline registration and market the college. Walk-in services have been increased, with students now able to enroll and take placement exams the same day. Social media has become a major marketing force, as well as relationships with local school districts and businesses.
"We're just reaching more people," Weitz said. "More and more for young learners, we're becoming their school of first choice."
The efforts seem to be paying off. For the second year in a row, enrollment increased for the 2017-18 school year.
"We had an increase of 2.7 percent in credits during the 2016-17 academic year compared to the 2015-16 academic year," Weitz said. "For this fall, we were also up compared to last fall."
A year to remember
In the final year of her RACC presidency, Weitz hasn't rested on her laurels.
No, 2017 wasn't a time for complacency. It was a time to do big things.
When asked about the recently concluded year, Weitz speaks with pride about three things in particular.
The first is the continued growth of RACC's learning center for multilingual students.
The center offers support to any student for which English isn't their first language. Along with helping them better grasp the language, programs at the center are designed to also help them feel more comfortable in a college setting, Weitz said.
She said that students who use the center have better retention rates and perform at higher levels than the student body as a whole.
The second high point of 2017, Weitz said, was an upgrade to RACC's science labs.
"I would say, and it's not an exaggeration, we knew since my first year here, and even before that, that we needed a new science building," she said.
But with a lagging economy and ongoing enrollment challenges, building something brand new just wasn't in the cards. Tapping in her practical side - the one that led her to adapt an old high school into a college campus during her previous presidency - she looked for options.
The college was able to secure a $1.6 million grant from the state Department of Education, and a capital campaign garnered another $2.3 million. A grant from the state Department of Community and Economic Development brought in $500,000.
It wasn't enough for a new building, but it was enough for renovations.
The chemistry and physics programs were moved from their home in Berks Hall - a former Holiday Inn along South Second Street - to new labs on the second floor of the Schmidt Center. And, in turn, a portion of Berks Hall was renovated to accommodate the biology program.
"And we did it all for about $4.6 million," Weitz said, adding that because the buildings were already in use the school didn't create new, expensive operating costs. "We strive very hard to be good stewards of the money people give to us.
"We're practical, and this was a practical solution."
The new labs and classrooms were unveiled earlier this year.
Another practical solution that came to fruition this year was the creation of a satellite campus.
Weitz in the summer signed a deal with the Wilson School District to host classes at Wilson Southern Middle School in Spring Township. The satellite site, which offers evening courses, created an option for people who couldn't make it to RACC's city campus.
The program opened in August, with just under 200 students taking at least one class there, Weitz said. Most of the classes are accelerated, taking only seven weeks compared to the normal 14.
The school district and RACC have already signed a one-year extension for the program.
Weitz said that going forward RACC might consider other satellite campuses, but stressed investing in "brick and mortar" isn't necessarily a good idea. She said online courses have become a major force in education and is something RACC will be delving into more and more.
As retirement has shifted from a dot on the horizon to a fully formed shape, sitting just in front of her, Weitz spoke emotionally about what her time at RACC has meant to her.
"It's been a great run," she said. "It's hard to believe it's coming to an end."
Her thoughts weren't about new programs or ungraded science labs or enrollment numbers. They were about people.
"This will sound corny, but I mean this sincerely: I'll remember the faces of our students," she said, recalling joyous smiles on the stage during commencement ceremonies. "I wish I could quantify the percentage of students I see coming towards me for a handshake with tears in their eyes because they didn't think they could do it.
"Even some of the students who don't know me grab me and hug me."
Weitz said she'll also think about RACC's role in the community when reflecting on her tenure. While always community focused, she said she likes to think she helped strengthen the college's relationship with Reading and Berks.
"We are the community's college," she said, saying community colleges hold a special in her heart. "It's about two things - hope and opportunity. We take students where they are - maybe they have an academic weakness or a language weakness - we take them where they are and get them where they need to be.
"We're an open door institution. We have solid academic standards, but we're about letting people try, supporting them, and if they don't make it we try something else. We don't turn people away, we don't tend to give up on folks."
Weitz said that despite her departure from RACC she isn't going to totally drop out of sight. Of course, she will take some much-needed time off, but plans to continue her work as a Wyomissing Foundation board of trustees member and perhaps get involved in "some other stuff."
"I'm not going anywhere," she said.
A caring leader
Weitz's focus on people hasn't gone unnoticed by those around her.
"Something I admire about Dr. Weitz is that while she is responsible for large, systemic aspects of the college, she also takes the time to reach out and check in on students with whom she has made a connection," said Dr. Danelle Bower, associate professor of social work and sociology.
Bower recalled one instance in particular, where Weitz met a new student in her first semester at a campus event.
"This student was so impressed that the president of the college took the time to speak with her," Bower said. "When Dr. Weitz learned this student was my advisee, she made it a point to check in on the student each time she spoke with me."
Weitz's thoughtful nature and care for others has also been evident in the way she treats the people who work at RACC, Bower said.
"Dr. Weitz has been supportive of the development of the leadership potential of administrators, faculty and staff," Bower said. "She has shown a sincere interest in several faculty and staff who have been enrolled in doctoral studies. For example, she has frequently checked in on their progress, provided advice and celebrated accomplishments.
"Reflecting on Dr. Weitz's tenure, I remember several tragedies that touched the lives of people connected with the college. In response to these, Dr. Weitz demonstrated empathy and compassion, going out of her way to connect with those affected. I feel it is important to note this as this aspect of a leader with such a public face is not as readily visible."
That caring, compassionate nature is something students see in Weitz as well.
"If I was to say, 'Hey, who wants to go meet with Dr. Weitz,' there's not one person who would be like 'Oh, I don't want to go,' " said Kristy Whitekettle, a student and president of the campus' Phi Beta Kappa and Psi Beta chapters. "It's very comfortable, it's easygoing to talk to her."
Whitekettle said that Weitz always has an open door for students, and is actively aware of everything going on around campus. She has valued the president's willingness to provide advice to students and student groups.
"She is very straight and to the point, she doesn't leave you guessing on anything," Whitekettle said. "And she's eager to share her wisdom and experience with students."
Weitz is also always ready to provide accolades and celebrate student success, Whitekettle said.
"She is very big on recognizing students for their academic success and the amount of time and effort they put into achieving that high standard," Whitekettle said. "She's really great at making students feel acknowledged for their personal gain."
Whitekettle, who will graduate in May, said she's extremely appreciative of all Weitz has done to create a comfortable, positive environment at RACC.
"I would want to thank her for being so supportive of students with a wide variety of backgrounds," she said. "She always made sure that no student is highlighted more than another, that every student is equal.
"It doesn't matter where you come from, she makes sure everyone is included."