$3 Million Grant Aids PE, Cumberland Schools

Published 4:56 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

CUMBERLAND – Cumberland Public Schools are working to create career-ready students and now they are getting a little extra help from Virginia Advanced Study Strategies, Inc (VASS), a nonprofit based in South Boston focused on helping prepare Virginia students for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. And, Prince Edward County Public Schools is getting in on the action too.

VASS states that its goal is to help develop tomorrow's workforce “by shifting the focus of K-12 public education from meeting minimum competencies to a culture of advanced academics.”

VASS recently was awarded a three million dollar “Investing in Innovation” grant from the US Department of Education that will be used to “create a strong workforce development partnership with STEM-related business, parents, and the local middle and high schools in six rural school divisions in Southern Virginia,” according to the VASS website.

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Their website also states that the grant was very competitive with only 20 of the 700 submitted proposals funded by the Department of Education. This proposal was one of two that had a focus on rural education.

Cumberland Superintendent of Schools Dr. Amy Griffin says that she was approached by the executive director of VASS, Paul Nichols, and asked if the school would be interested in participating in the program, “I said, 'Of course I'm interested.'” In a conversation with The Herald, which was primarily focused on the school's budget, Dr. Griffin expressed her enthusiasm about the new program with VASS and said she is eager to receive any help or money she can for the students.

The program supported by the “Investing in Innovation” grant will not only work with students, although they will be the ultimate benefactors. VASS's Rural Math Excel Partnership “enhances STEM training for teachers and communicates the value of STEM to parents and communities.”

The press release quotes Katherine DeRosear, the director of workforce development at the Virginia Manufacturers Association, as saying there is a skill gap of 11,000 people per year in Virginia's top 10 manufacturing occupations, with the greatest demand being for manufacturing technicians.

DeRosear states, “too often during recruitment, we're finding that individuals lack the critical math and science skills needed for the jobs we have available.” However, she believes, “VASS is helping to build the foundation that tomorrow's workforce will need for 21st century jobs.”

Dr. Griffin says the program will first survey businesses to assess what math skills students need to perform well and then analyze the school's curriculum for any gaps in preparation and training. Teachers will then receive professional development through the program to help fill those identified gaps.

The program will also work with parents. Nichols states, “Technical occupations are among the fastest growing job fields in America. Traditional, blue-collar, rural communities need students capable of pursing technical-level and higher career choices…Our program will help close the gap by engaging whole families in the student's pursuit of advanced math studies.”

Griffin says that the program will also help educate parents about what the world of manufacturing looks like today, which may be very different from the dark and musty factory work that many may assume. She wants parents to “understand why it is important for students to have these high math skills.”

Finally, the program seeks to engage the entire community, coordinating with local organizations to conduct at least one major STEM career event.

This is not VASS's first partnership with schools. According to the press release, their program focusing on student achievement on AP tests brought a 143 percent increase in qualifying math, science and English AP exams after two years for one cohort of students.

Prince Edward and Cumberland are two of the six rural school divisions that will benefit from the new program. The other four school divisions are Charlotte County, Halifax County, Henry County and Martinsville City.

The program is designed to be three years long, with the possibility of increasing its size if it is successful. A third-party evaluator will be used to track grant implementation and measure outcomes.