Leaders at colleges and school systems along the Interstate 81 corridor between Bristol and Whiteville are working to open a lab school in Southwest Virginia.
The lab school will be launched by the Emory & Henry College School of Health Sciences and will involve school systems in Bristol, Washington County, Smith County and White County, Smith County Superintendent Dennis Carter said Friday during a lab school workshop in Abingdon . The Southwest Virginia Center for Higher Education, Virginia Highlands Community College and Whiteville Community College will also be included, he said.
Carter, David Matlock, executive director of the Center for Higher Education, and Smith County Community Hospital CEO Dale Clark discussed the project with Virginia Secretary of Education Amy Rogstad Guidera and Under Secretary Mackenzie Snow during one of 32 workshops offered at United Way of Southwest Virginia’s 2022 Rural Summit.
The Lab School is a K-12 public school that is designed to be an “innovative, high-quality educational experience,” according to the state Department of Education. It is a partnership between higher education, employers, school departments and communities.
The lead partner must be a college, but it doesn’t have to be a four-year institution, so community colleges and higher education centers already qualify.
The school must focus on academic programs in an in-demand field such as computer science or sports medicine, according to the Department of Education.
State Sen. Todd Pillion, D-Washington D., was the lead sponsor of the legislation authorizing the lab schools. Earlier this year, $100 million was appropriated by the General Assembly to pay for school start-up costs, which are a big part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s agenda, Guidera said.
And they couldn’t come at a better time, Guidera said, just days after the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress results on the reading and math tests were released. The Nation’s Report found that fourth-graders in Virginia are posting the largest declines in reading and math in the nation.
“Our learning loss in maths and reading was three times worse than the national average and the national average was not good,” the education minister said.
She added that the state’s “one-size-fits-all approach to education” is failing students.
The governor’s plan is to open 20 lab schools within five years. Initially, the plan is to place a lab school in each of the eight regions of the Department of Education superintendent so that the schools are spread across the state, Guidera said.
As of three months ago, Guidera said 37 institutions of higher learning had expressed interest in opening a lab school.
The state already has six applications and the hope is to have a couple open in September 2023, Guidera said.
The project in Southwest Virginia has not yet submitted a bid, but the plan is to focus on health care. There is no application deadline.
Matlock said the local lab school will provide “pathways and create pipelines to meet the workforce needs of Southwest Virginia.”
Smith County Hospital’s Clark said the help is needed. There are currently 2,500 open positions in the Ballad Health system, he said.
The lab’s school plan in Southwest Virginia is for about 80 students in grades nine through 12, according to Carter. In its second year, the plan is to incorporate the University of Virginia College at Wise and that area of the region into the lab school, he said.
Lab schools must be approved by the State Board of Education and, unlike charter schools, do not require local approval.
A process for selecting students has not been established, but Guidera said it will most likely be done through a “lottery system.”
The Education Minister said the hope is that interest is so high that many laboratory schools will be built in the coming years.
“It’s about providing access to excellence, and our hope is that there will be such a demand for these schools that we’ll just keep building them and keep replicating the success,” she said.
She added that more money for lab schools will be sought during the 2023 General Assembly.
But with no future money guaranteed, Carter, the Smith County superintendent, said those developing the local lab school must find a way for it to eventually be self-sustaining.