Mecklenburg County schools may be one of the first to have new facilities built to complement Virginia’s new graduation requirements and what’s known as “Profile of a Graduate.” It’s a new approach to education with a goal to give students multiple paths to good paying jobs. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Learning Curve.
At Bluestone High School, students are working on a computer programming concept called looping.
Amanda Bowen: So they are taking a sentence and having to remove the vowels out of it.
Business and IT teacher Amanda Bowen facilitates the class, picking up computer science skills herself. It’s a partnership with Microsoft called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools or TEALS. Computer scientists in the industry co-teach, often through video conferencing.
Bowen: And the students can Skype those volunteers during class with problems.
Senior Alyssa Hardison is trying to work out a problem on her own.
Alyssa Hardison: Devowel and then whatever you type in here, it takes out the vowels. I've done it a few times where it almost works. But then it it won't go to the next letter or whatever.
Even with this challenge, Hardison says the class convinced her to major in computer science.
Hardison: It's a stable career and it's like kind of fun.
Katie Kusjanovic: What are you trying to do with the string?
Today’s mentor is cybersecurity professional Katie Kusjanovic. She drove down from Northern Virginia to work with the teens face-to-face. One of her goals is to help more women get into computer science.
Kusjanovic: This is how it starts. It's hard, it's miserable, you have no clue why the computer is doing what it's doing. But um, you know, it's like math. It's predictable, you learn the pattern and you can figure it out and it's very, very, very empowering - very empowering. As a young woman, you know to learn how to do this, even if you don't do it as a career even still being able to engage these analytic processes. It's massively empowering. It's one of the most feminist things you can do is learn how to code.
Students from Mecklenburg’s other high school, Park View, make the 20 mile trip to Bluestone to take this class. It’s just a small piece of what the District has planned in its education redesign. By 2022, they hope to cut the ribbon on a state-of-the art campus that combines the two high schools and includes a new middle school.
Paul Nichols: The goal is that we're not looking at building a traditional building as we've known it forever.
Paul Nichols is the Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent.
Nichols: But we're focusing on redesigning the school for academic success with the students, but even perhaps more.critical for the students is that they're preparing for jobs in the future
Located in Southside Virginia, more than 60% of Mecklenburg students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Per capita income is about $21,000, while about a quarter of the population is 65 or older.
Nichols: The state didn't have a large emphasis of building colleges in our area as much as they are throughout the other areas. Longwood University and Averett are probably our strongest ones in close proximity. And so we don't have the most educated population from that perspective. We've got people with strong work ethic but there is a lot of poverty as tobacco and manufacturing changed, it did change our economy and from the school's perspective we are one of those localities that has lost well over 10 percent of our youth population with the declining enrollments.
Mecklenburg’s plan for school redesign aligns with the state’s new Profile of a Graduate, which reduces standardized tests and creates different career and educational pathways for students, including those that don’t require a four-year degree. The new approach places greater emphasis on “the five C’s: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication and citizenship. Brian Matney is the District’s director of secondary education.
Brian Matney: You know, we've had heretofore a situation where a child's come out with a general endorsement with a high school diploma of academic skills. But we know now that 21st Century jobs require a specialization. It's not only what I know, but what can I do with what I know. So we don't want any child to cross the stage at commencement in the future, having just a diploma but no “career GPS” where they've got a plan and a specific set of esoteric skills that we think will be nurtured in a new high school.
The new consolidated high school will have six career centers that reflect projected job growth in the area. There’s Health and Human Services; Advanced Technology; STEM, Environmental Science, Law and Leadership, and International Business and Culture.
Nichols: We interviewed 43 in Southern Virginia persons who represent one of each of these Career Centers, and we asked them to sit down and tell us what math do you need to do for your job and it was incredible.
This is helping the District determine what needs to be taught and when, for example concepts in algebra and geometry that should be reinforced in high school.
Nichols: We looked at the whole idea of metric conversions. Every one of them had to understand not only our system of measurement but also it was different. Some of them were using it for tools. Some of them were using it for pills. Some of them were using it for a variety of ways. So we go back into the SOLs and we say so where do we teach, do we teach this? Every one of the things they showed us we need to know, we said do we need it and other than statistics somewhere it's there, predominantly again in middle school with higher order thinking skills related to fundamental math, that specific issue of metric equations is in our SOLs in the fifth grade and never again looked at unless it's in a CTE program or science program where nobody says this is math. And so the students don't pick up on that issue. So again, we're looking at how do we build that into what they need for what they're doing.
The District is also using a personal learning platform called MARi. In Elementary and Middle School, students can use the app to collect “digital badges” they earn for enrichment activities, like the Scouts, 4H, camp or volunteering. MARi also can track students’ interests, assess growth and determine what academic and social skills are needed for specific career pathways.
Nichols: Our goal is to pull in what we call career tiles from business and industry and these career tiles basically say if you want to be a phlebotomist or if you want to be a linesman or if you want to be a welder and you want to work for the particular company what in an overarching sense does that company look for in their employee for that job? What are the academic requirements? What are the certifications? What are the soft skills that they're looking for?
Nichols says they know they face challenges implementing these major changes, including getting families comfortable with a new approach to education.
Nichols: Parents and students have been told for so many years if you go to college and you’re successful in college, then you'll be fine for at least a middle-class lifestyle. Well the data now doesn't bear that out. The data is showing that there are so many degrees that one can get in college. But when you come back and look for a job particularly in a rural area, you don't find those jobs are supported or will support the college debt that you have amassed.
Nichols says he understands parents’ concerns that teens often don’t know what careers they want to pursue.
Nichols: If a parent comes to me and says what child at 15, 16 knows what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I'm very quick to say, very few. It's not my goal to establish for them what they would do with the rest of their lives. The goal here is to put them in an understanding and practice of processing the future, and where I currently am with what the future looks like and knowing how that's going to be an essential skill. How do I look at the future and know how to purposefully make adjustments to my life?
Nichols and Matney says the school system is the foundation of economic development. By aligning instruction with job opportunities - now and in the future - they hope to keep talented youth in the region.
Matney: I've talked to any number of folks who have deep, deep roots in Mecklenburg County. They were educated here and would love to return but they say again that we lack opportunities. How do we make a living wage? I would love to be in my home county, in my hometown but just can't see a way there would be opportunities for me to make a living. If we continue to hear the clarion call of businesses, what they need here locally as well as what’s needed statewide and nationally, again with K-12 being the fuel and impetus for economic growth, that tide can turn.
The District is working to secure more than 170 acres centrally located off Highway 58 for the new schools. Construction will likely exceed $100,000 million. They’re also seeking community input about what students and parents want to see in the new facilities. For Learning Curve, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.