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City schools granted waiver
Classes may begin before Labor Day due to programs
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Martinsville City Schools Superintendent Pam Heath speaks to the Virginia Board of Education on Thursday in Richmond. (Contributed photo)

Friday, April 25, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The Virginia Board of Education on Thursday approved Martinsville City Public Schools’ application to open before Labor Day due to an innovative program: the school division’s STEM Pipeline Initiative.

“I’m still a bit in shock it was approved” because the state board had denied the last several waiver applications submitted by other divisions on the basis of innovative program, MCPS Superintendent Pam Heath said in a phone interview.

“I strongly believe it’s right for our students, business partners and community and that it’s a win for everybody,” she said. She added she “felt compelled” not to give up on the effort to get approval for the early opening, despite the odds and the fact that the approval process is a high bar to meet for preK through eighth grade.

The city schools’ STEM Pipeline is a prekindergarten through 12th grade initiative to develop students’ skills and interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers, according to the school division’s website.

A key aspect of the program is aligning the calendars of the public schools with their partner colleges, universities and other entities. School officials have said that cannot be done if the public schools open after Labor Day.

“The issue of proving the case for high school is not so difficult” because of such things as dual enrollment, Heath has said. Making the case for preK-8 is harder, she said.

“You have to prove it is essential” to open before Labor Day “to run this innovative program,” she added.

Heath and Coray Davis, associate professor of engineering and technology at Virginia State University and program director for the Academy for Engineering and Technology program (AEP) at the New College Institute, made a presentation to the Virginia Board of Education on Thursday in Richmond for the board’s second reading and vote on the city schools’ application.

Among the points they made were the importance of making the program available to all students at school; the disadvantages many students face in terms of lack of access to resources, transportation and career-related opportunities in the STEM field; the area’s persistently high unemployment rate; and the loss of thousands of jobs.

They mentioned that building an awareness of STEM at a young age gives students a purpose for learning Algebra and higher levels of science and math, and that it is too late to wait until high school to begin working with students on STEM careers.

They mentioned the higher education and business partners in the STEM Pipeline and their support for the program and how the STEM initiative will help develop a pipeline of workers for local businesses and industries in an effort to help businesses, the community and MCPS students prosper.

“A final piece we honed in on was the robotics program,” Heath said. Research shows robotics has positive benefits in math instruction. “That’s something we have also heard from our business partners.”

They also discussed other needs for and benefits of the program and other aspects of the application, Heath said.

State board members “were very complimentary,” Heath said. “It was expressed they felt like what we presented to them was taking the long view. We weren’t just putting in a patchwork of pieces.”

State board members felt the pipeline will help address systemic challenges and that “we had put together an innovative program that is proven and research-based to engage in STEM careers that will lead to a more highly skilled work force for local industries,” Heath said. “They praised the partnerships we developed. They looked at our websites, with plans for elementary, middle and high schools. They praised (that) we are working closely with education, business and economic development partners.”

One board member commented that advanced manufacturing, motorsports and technology are good fits for this area, Heath said.

The state board took three votes: 8-0 in favor for the high school, 8-0 in favor for the middle school and 6-2 in favor for elementary schools, Heath said.

Having a waiver to open before Labor Day will go into effect in the 2014-15 school year and will eliminate the need to depend on a weather waiver, Heath said. MCPS doesn’t have a weather waiver now but would have been able to open before Labor Day in 2014-15 because it is surrounded by Henry County Public Schools, which has such a waiver.

Instead, the state superintendent will be able to renew MCPS’ waiver to open before Labor Day on the basis of innovative program, Heath said.

Some changes in 2014-15 in MCPS are that robotics instruction will be expanded at the middle school and added to elementary schools, and competitive robotics will be added at elementary schools.


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