- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - High school isn’t what it used to be.

That’s the consensus of a growing number of educators who say how and what students are taught must change in order to better prepare them for a rapidly changing workforce that demands new skills.

With that goal in mind, a group of 13 area school systems have banded together to start a new regional high school that will allow students to meet their core requirements while getting an education focused on computer science.

The school, now known by the project name Richmond Regional School for Innovation-CodeRVA, is set to open next school year with a class of about 80 ninth-grade students.

The idea is to make sure graduates are better prepared to enter a job market that requires a set of skills not currently taught at schools. Skills, educators say, that are valuable even to students who don’t go into the computer science field.



Students at the new regional school will spend their freshmen and sophomore years taking core classes needed for graduation while also taking computer science and technology courses.

They will then spend their junior and senior years learning real-world job skills through internships while working toward earning a two-year degree from local community colleges.

“If you look at the history of high schools, the high school model of today was built 100 years ago,” said James F. Lane, superintendent of Goochland County Public Schools, who is leading the effort.

“We want to create a high school environment that’s more reflective of modern education and preparation for the modern workforce.”

In making the case for a $50,000 high school innovation planning grant for the new regional school, local officials cited research showing a high demand for software developers and system engineers.

Officials wrote in the application that a Microsoft-funded study found there are 120,000 jobs created in the U.S. each year that require workers with the skills required for computer science degrees. The education system, though, only produces 49,000 such degrees each year.

This is the gap the new regional school is hoping to help fill.

The grant, which the group of local schools won in June, allows the 13 regional school systems, working with community colleges and outside groups, to start putting the school together in time to start during the 2016-17 school year.

Over the next few months, officials will continue planning the program, working through the early part of next year to create the infrastructure that will sustain the school for years to come.

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Starting a school from scratch is no easy task, officials say. The laundry list of work that needs to be done before students enter a classroom includes creating the curriculum, hiring the teachers and administrators, developing a budget and finding space to house the school.

The school will be operated and governed by a regional school board of all participating school divisions, similar to the regional Governor’s schools. Like the Governor’s schools, the school systems will primarily fund the program through tuition payments for students based on the number of slots selected by each county.

While the school will grow in size over time, the plan is to begin small in September with about 80 students. Officials want to eventually bring in about 200 freshmen each year.

Lane said the hope is to open the completed program full-scale during the 2017-18 school year.

MAXX Potential, CodeVA and the Richmond Technology Council all will play a role in the regional school. As officials begin planning to fill out the student body, they say that, to make sure the right students get the opportunity, the school will be open to all, unlike other regional schools that are typically reserved for select students.

The plan now is to recruit students for the program, but that will change later when applicants will be chosen in a lottery.

“We are, very consciously going forward with the idea that this is not going to be like a specialty center,” said Susan Dandridge, grants coordinator for Chesterfield County Public Schools. “It’s not designed for the gifted and talented kids. We are really trying to recruit a wide variety of types of students, both traditional and non-traditional.”

Chesterfield is the fiscal agent for the regional school project and wrote the grant application.

The new regional school is part of growing national trend aimed at transforming how students learn in order to better prepare them for the workforce.

Helping push this philosophy is the White House, which last month hosted the first Summit on Next Generation High Schools.

The summit was designed to bring students, entrepreneurs, school officials and philanthropists together under one roof to brainstorm on ways to change how schools work.

Ahead of the summit, the administration announced that it would award more than $20 million in “Investing in Innovation” grants to “support the reform and redesign” of high schools. The grant is aimed at schools with large populations of low-income students.

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The effort to reimagine high schools is being led in part by groups outside traditional school systems.

Earlier this year, Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, launched the $50 million “XQ: The Super School Project.”

The project is looking to fund programs committed to “rethinking and building schools that deeply prepare our students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs and life.”

The local regional school will apply for an XQ grant, said Donna Dalton, chief academic officer for Chesterfield County Public Schools.

Along with the new regional school, local systems already are working to integrate computer science skills into their curriculums and working with outside groups to try to get students interested in technology.

It is part of the large effort underway in education to get all students, beginning as young as kindergarten, comfortable with technology and to teach them the inner workings.

“There are a lot of opportunities that our students are now being exposed to that support the coding curriculum. We’re really aggressively trying to build that coding pipeline for students,” Dalton said.

At Goochland Middle School on Dec. 4, Capital One volunteers worked with more than a dozen students to finish game apps the students had built over 10 sessions.

The workshop was created to expose students to coding and help pique their interest by teaching them how to create apps for smartphones or tablets.

At the Dec. 4 session, teams of students finalized their projects - which ranged from a game with a problem that had to be solved in five seconds, to truth or dare - before officially unveiling them at an apps fair this week.

Students mostly said the program taught them that creating a game wasn’t as daunting as they imagined and that they were willing to study more.

“Whether they like it or not, their future involves some piece of technology,” said Ranjan Kohli, director of software engineering at Capital One.

“The sooner they get comfortable with that, the better they’ll be able to build on it, and then decide they want to make it a career or (be able to) navigate the various systems that are going to be out there.”

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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