I’m going to take a brief break from my series, “Portrait of a Graduate,” to give attention to the county’s capital improvement project for our secondary schools. Everyone giving attention to these articles is aware that the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors has authorized the architectural firm Crabtree, Rohrbaugh, & Associates (CR Associates) to conduct a study of best options for new secondary school(s) in Mecklenburg. Basically the study will be to determine the best solution for updating or building new middle and high school facilities. The first public hearings on this project will be held at the Park View High School gym on Wednesday, March 2, and at the Bluestone High School gym on Thursday, March 3. Both meetings will begin at 7:00 PM.
What has brought us to the time for these public hearings? The Board of Supervisors and the School Board have a joint Education Committee that has created a Steering Committee to oversee the process of determining what type of structure(s) will best serve the needs for new secondary facilities. CR Associates was hired to conduct a professional study of current facilities, gather public ideas, identify educational needs, and identify the potential costs related to each different option to be considered. With public input, the Steering Committee will make recommendations to both Boards for final decisions about what to build.
There are several options to be considered. Mecklenburg is one of the largest counties in Virginia. It is wide and has been traditionally divided by east and west with Park View Middle and High Schools on the east side and Bluestone Middle and High Schools on the west side. All four of these schools were built in the 1950’s and are in poor shape. Part of the work that CR Associates has done to date is to conduct a thorough engineering study of all four sites. This information will be shared at the public hearings. Typically there are two issues that will be the driving forces for the final decision of the committee, public emotion and cost.
Public emotion engages a number of important topics. Traditional Dragon/Baron rivalries, transportation issues for our students, size and number of athletic teams, and placement of new facilities are a few of the issues that I hear debated. Passions run deep about each topic and there are good arguments backing each person’s point. Cost is also a huge factor that is argued logically from a number of perspectives. These issues have the potential to create great tension within our community. I would like to add a third element of consideration that might build a bridge of consensus among differing opinions. Lets focus on the need to create the learning environment that will prepare our students for success in the highly technical global economy that they must compete and live in. If we do this, we will serve the best needs of our children and our community and get the best return on investment for our capital outlay.
The foundation components for an education system that will prepare students for the global economy are established in my articles “The Portrait of a Graduate.” It’s the focus on career literacy, academic excellence, skill development, and community interaction. There are more details to be considered:
· Today’s schools were created at the beginning of the industrial revolution. They are basically set up like an old manufacturing plant with students the rivets that are molded into the same end product. Every other institution has been forced to modernize with technologies that allow for customization of the product. We can do this for our students by creating career centers that engage them with career information and custom education programs to prepare each student uniquely for their chosen goals.
· An estimated 70% of the jobs in the global economy require skills one acquires through technical programs leading to certifications. These are available for careers in advanced manufacturing, healthcare, STEM areas, IT, agriculture, energy, and law enforcement, to name a few. Certification programs in these areas are currently available at the local community colleges and higher education centers. The equipment for training students is expensive and trainers are hard to recruit. We need to partner with those programs for our students rather than duplicate this effort.
· More and more academic and skill development resources are being made available to students online. For example, a student interested in a computer science career can earn a whole series of coding credentials online through Code Academy or Team Treehouse. We must give our students the opportunity to take advantage of these programs for local credit.
· Schools have traditionally functioned in an isolated environment. We must make our schools reflect the realities of the business world. Therefore, it is increasingly important for students to interact with local businesses that represent the career pathway they have chosen. Business recruiters complain that most students do not have the appropriate “soft skills” for their business. This includes such things as coming to work on time, getting along with other workers, dressing appropriately, and knowing how to be friendly with the public. Schools reinforce these issues but the best environment for learning is on the job. This can be done through career exploration camps, internships, apprenticeships, and entry-level jobs. Our schools are now able to track student participation in these programs and give appropriate credit.
· Students that are preparing for careers that require bachelors or graduate level degrees must have a very strong academic foundation that will prepare them for university rigor, thinking, and time management. We need to secure these classes with appropriate curriculum and teacher training.
These are components that should be built into new schools to prepare today’s students for the careers of tomorrow. Building this environment will prepare our students and also create a reputation for our community to make businesses want to locate in Mecklenburg County. We will have a school system that produces a good workforce and one that current and prospective business leadership and employees would be proud to have their children attend. I encourage you to join us for these public hearings.