Monday, March 14, 2016

MCPS Secondary School Improvement Project, Phase II

Plans for the upgrade or building of new middle and high schools in Mecklenburg County are heading into phase II. For those that are not familiar I will provide a brief update. Bluestone and Park View middle and high schools were built in the early 1950’s. The infrastructure of these buildings is very worn and needs to be upgraded or replaced. A variety of surveys and plans toward this goal have been considered many times over the past 20 years but to no definitive conclusion.  The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors hired the architectural firm of Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates (CR&A) in December of 2015 to develop a community study to determine if the current buildings need to be replaced and, if so, what would be the best option. The Board of Supervisors and the MCPS School Board met together this past January to form a joint Steering Committee to oversee the process.

Phase 1 of the project, the Best Practices Planning, started soon after the two Boards identified 25 community leaders to serve on the Steering Committee. This phase has focused on the process of collecting community surveys, conducting an assessment of the four school facilities, and engaging public hearings at Park View High School and Bluestone High School. The results of these initial programs have been well covered by the local press and have produced interesting community, school staff, and student opinions. It is very clear that a large majority of our community recognize that the current facilities are not adequate for our students’ educational needs.   

Phase II will concentrate on identifying the preferred choice for the new facilities. We discovered through the surveys and hearings that there are several options that are available for consideration. Options include:
  • ·      Major renovations to all four buildings at their current location.
  • ·      Building four new middle and high school facilities.
  • ·      Consolidating the middle and high school facilities on both sides of the county. The middle and high school programs would remain separate but would share common use areas like kitchens and athletic facilities.
  • ·      Consolidating all four schools into one large campus with shared common areas for middle and high school.
  • ·      Consolidating the high schools in a middle area of the county and upgrading the current high schools to move the middle schools to those locations.

There is much work to be done to determine which option will be selected. A schedule has been determined for this process. Steering Committee workshops will take place on March 23, April 7, April 21, and May 5. The first of these meetings will focus on establishing a vision of what schools should look like as we prepare students to be successful with career and college in this high-tech, global economy. I’ve used this column over the past several weeks to establish a foundation for what a 21st Century school should look like. How can this vision be developed into structures within the context of the facility options and what will each cost? Once the Steering Committees work with CR&A to work this out the public will be invited again to review the options, ask questions, and give voice to your preference. Public reviews and hearings will be held at each of the four elementary schools:
  • ·      South Hill Elementary; May 11, 7:00 PM in the cafeteria
  • ·      Chase City Elementary; May 12, 7:00 PM in the cafeteria
  • ·      LaCrosse Elementary; May 18, 7:00 PM in the cafeteria
  • ·      Clarksville Elementary; May 19, 7:00 PM in the cafeteria

Upon completion of public hearings and input the Steering Committee will have follow-up meetings on June 9 and 23 to make final decisions of what options will be pursued.

Cost is going to play a major roll in determining which option will be chosen. This cost must be considered from the perspective of what gives us as a county the best return on investment (ROI). Mecklenburg County is very unique among rural counties in Virginia because it is poised for significant economic development. One of the few limitations for growth is the perception that we have a poor k12 education system. Business wants two characteristics from an education system; programs that will produce the workforce they need, and one that they will be proud for their children to attend. These characteristics are measured in two ways: the actual preparation of the students, and the looks of the school facilities. We will take care of the first through our focus on career literacy, advanced academics, development of skill credentials, and critical community partnerships. The second characteristic will be determined by the choices made with the building options.

I am working with school staff and the School Board to create the 2016-17 budget. Like the phases of the capital improvement project this takes much thought and time. State law requires that we present a preliminary budget proposal to the Board of Supervisors by April 1. It is quite appropriate that the two Boards have to consider the costs of the 2016-17 budget along with the cost of the capital improvement project. Both are expensive. Next year’s budget for the schools will include a 2% increase in salary for staff that was passed by our General Assembly this year, a 1% increase for teacher retirement, and an 8.7% increase in health insurance. NONE of these are decisions of the local Board. Some might ask, “Do you want to have an increase in these expenses of the budget or updated/new schools?” My response to this is to work for BALANCE. Keep in mind that the student’s interaction with the teachers inside the school building is as important as what the schools looks like. We must maintain a high quality teaching staff. We must also do all that we can to be RESPONSIBLE with the local taxpayer’s funding. It will take an investment with the teachers and the facilities to get the best ROI!      

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Necessity of Community Engagement:

Portrait of a Graduate: Part V

The final circle on our “Portrait of a Graduate” graphic represents the necessity of engagement with the local community. Many critical lessons of life are learned through a multitude of experiences beyond the classroom. These occur on academic and athletic team competitions, through programs offered by civic and church groups, scouting, and summer camps, and through actual job experiences. Students that have the opportunity to take advantage of the out-of-school programs find that the experiences reinforce career choices and connect practical applications with academic theory. We need to be intentional in connecting the practical nature of the informal out-of-school experiences with the formal school-based lessons and be sure that all students have these opportunities.

Lets consider a few examples of community engagement that are very important for students:
·      Employers often complain that young workers do not demonstrate appropriate “soft skills.” This includes the responsibility to arrive at work on time, get along with co-workers, and communicate well with the public. Teachers can teach behavioral expectations in the class but they must be practiced in real-world environments to become habit. These skills are reinforced in most informal education activities like team sports, 4H programs, and particularly at part-time jobs or internships.
·      Business leaders will often complain that students don’t know how to perform simple academic tasks like reading a ruler or counting change. The underlying concepts of these tasks are found in our academic curriculum but are quickly forgotten without the reality of practical application. With dynamic job internship evaluations the school could provide reinforcement of critical academic gaps.
·      Students often set unrealistic or untested career goals. As a school counselor I would often hear a student tell great ambitious stories of their goal to become a dentist or astronaut, but then insist that they were not the least bit interested in taking chemistry or physics.  Community engagement activities would provide early reinforcement of career interest and aptitude. More importantly, it would reinforce the understanding of job availability and pay.  

So how do we create connections between a student’s academic program and their informal education experiences? Technology provides a solution in the form of digital badges, a type of credential that captures the components and mastery of experience. Think of the process a Girl or Boy Scout goes through to earn the emblems for their achievement sash. This can be done with any informal education experience with the mastery of skills captured technologically and stored in a digital portfolio. This information can then be imported into the school’s Student Information System (SIS) and credited to the student’s record.

Many students today take advantage of a number of informal education and part time job experiences. The benefits of these are many but unmeasured and little to no credit is given for these experiences on official records that are shared with potential employers or to the next level of education. We need to be sure that all students have these experiences and we must recognize the benefits of connecting the informal and formal experiences. As we do this we will find that parents and students will begin to recognize the very practical reality and importance of a quality education. Students will be more motivated to achieve with mastery for they will see that school is necessary for success with life, not just required to earn a diploma.

Success with this aspect of our vision will require the development of strong partnerships between our school system and local businesses, civic organizations, and youth activity programs. We have an abundance of programs in Mecklenburg County that do an outstanding job of engaging the youth. We are also very blessed to have the Mecklenburg Business Education Partnership program that was established many years ago with a vision to support this very type of activity. I look forward to working with each local business and organization to make this vision a reality for our graduates

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Portrait of a Graduate Pt. 4: Filling the Skills Gap

Recently the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission made a significant investment in the development of three Manufacturing Center’s of Excellence in Southern and Southwest Virginia. These Centers provide training for anyone interested in earning a variety of industry credentials that are required for tens of thousands of good paying jobs all over the country. Of course, the Tobacco Commission is primarily interested in preparing a workforce that will attract business to bring their jobs to this area of Virginia. Dr. Dietra Trent, Deputy Secretary of Education for Virginia, served as the representative for the Governor for the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Center that was established in South Boston at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. Dr. Trent serves specifically as the Deputy Secretary for Higher Education. She stated at the ceremony that these Centers are as important to Virginia as our Universities, for it is skill development that fuels today’s economy.

Unfortunately, we are seriously lacking the numbers of persons that have the training for these skills. Why is this? I have asked this question of business representatives across Virginia. The common answer that I get is that parents in the USA have assumed for decades that their children would only be successful if they earned a college degree. Our K12 education system has reinforced this impression by focusing student attention primarily on academic preparation for college. This has been stressed to such a degree that career and technical (CTE) classes are often relegated as second-class programs or even worse, a dumping ground.  Many CTE programs have disappeared entirely from our schools over the past decade as we have suffered deep budget cuts and overemphasis on minimum competency tests.

Part of the reason that parents are concerned about their children pursuing CTE programs is an old perception that they lead to low-paying, menial jobs. Many have mental images of dirty old factories where people lined up for repetitive tasks on an assembly line. They remember when these jobs were outsourced to countries overseas leaving the workers in unemployment lines. Today’s CTE programs provide students with skills that lead to jobs that are just the opposite. This is due to the explosion of technology and its impact on those jobs. Computers and robotics are central to most of the skills that students learn in these classes. The working environment is high tech, high skill, and high wage.

Preparing students to fill the workforce is not the primary purpose of a K12 education. I don’t want anyone to get this impression. School should provide students with a strong education foundation that leads them to be successful and responsible members of our society. In this day and time, it is a combination of career literacy, strong academics, access to skill development toward industry certification, and opportunities to engage in real life experiences in the business world that is required to do this. I invite you to take a look at a short video that explains the need for every student to include skill development in their education portfolio. It is called “Success in the New Economy” by Kevin Fleming and it can be found online at

A huge benefit for CTE students today is the development of professional credentialing systems that represent attainment of different levels of academic and skill mastery within a career. Nursing is an example. Young persons that believe they are interested in pursuing a career in this field that is in high demand can explore and investigate by taking classes to earn a Nursing Assistant Certificate. If they determine that they want to pursue the career further, then they can take classes and demonstrate mastery of specific skills as they earn the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) certificate. With even more study and skill development one can earn the Registered Nurse (RN) certificate. Ultimately, a student can become a Nurse Practitioner, a medical specialist serving in a variety of medical applications.

These levels of skill certification are being found in many career areas and students can begin in high school. Mecklenburg County Public Schools (MCPS) are developing partnerships with a variety of institutions of higher education to create seamless connections from one level of certification to another. This includes, but is not limited to, Southside Virginia Community College and the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center. Partnering with these institutions will allow our students to participate in the skill development programs that they offer without MCPS having to duplicate the purchase of high dollar training equipment.

How can the average 15 or 16-year-old student know what career they want to pursue to begin working toward the appropriate skills? This is an excellent question. It is not our goal to predetermine a child’s future at an early age. However, working with students toward the exploration of local, state, national, and even global career realities and then teaching them to set goals and take steps toward completion of those goals is a critical foundation of life-long learning.

The world of work has changed dramatically over the past decade. New technologies are replacing many jobs and the workforce is now global. Career data suggest that jobs will continue to evolve at an even faster pace in the future. Today’s students will have to make quick adjustments and have as many as a dozen different jobs in their lifetime to fit into new careers that we can’t even describe now. Lifelong learning is a reality for these students and we must teach them by example how to make critical decisions along the way and complete tasks of mastery in academics and skill development.