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Virginia education secretary hails local agenda in county visit to county

South Boston News
Atif Qarni meets leaders from Mecklenburg County schools, business community and government Tuesday morning ahead of a tour of school facilities. / May 02, 2018
Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni was back in Mecklenburg County Tuesday morning to learn about career and college readiness programs that Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols is implementing locally.

Qarni, who was appointed Virginia’s education chief by Gov. Ralph Northam, began the day by meeting educators, business and government leaders from across the county and touring the Lake County Advanced Knowledge Center in South Hill, learning about the various STEM programs offered there.

He said he was “trying to get a better understanding of the needs of the schools, traveling to schools, meeting with school board members, parents, superintendents and students to see what are the different challenges.”

Joining Qarni and Nichols during the morning tour were Nathan Hamm of Microsoft, Jim Moody, CEO of VETS Inc., Scott Burnett, CEO of VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital, Lelani Todd with Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, and county supervisors Glenn Barbour and Claudia Lundy. Also accompanying the group were Economic Director Angie Kellett, Gina Lawrimore of the Mecklenburg County Business Education Partnership, Dr. Chad Patton, Dean of Career and Occupational Technology at SVCC, Deborah Gosney, Deputy Director of the Southside Planning District Commission, South Hill Mayor Dean Marion, School Board trustees Dora Garner and Wanda Bailey, and school division administrators Dr. Kristy Somerville-Midgette, Dr. Brian Matney, Christy Pfeffer, Mary Hodges, Brooke Hatcher, Gary Cifers, and Robin Moore

Under Nichols’ leadership, Mecklenburg County Public School was one of the first school divisions in Virginia to accept the challenge by the Department of Education to transition from a system focused on SOL test preparation to one that is focused on preparing students to be successful with life skills of the 21st century.

His curriculum redesign — with an emphasis on CTE programs, mentoring and job shadowing opportunities, strengthened academics, community engagement, career literacy, and creation of smaller learning environments focused around six career centers — has drawn attention throughout the Commonwealth.

Nichols told Qarni that considerable effort has been given to develop strong partnerships with local businesses. The goal being to identify actual job opportunities and requirements that can become a part of each student’s education process. He identified Microsoft, VETS, Inc. and the hospital as among the businesses working with the school division on this goal.

One of the reasons Nichols said he wanted Qarni to tour the Lake Country Advanced Knowledge Center was to see, first hand, the partnership Mecklenburg County Public Schools has developed with higher education. The facility, operated by SVCC, offers Mecklenburg students the opportunity to enroll in classes in welding, powerline working, advanced manufacturing, machining, robotics, phlebotomy, and massage therapy, among other areas.

Qarni heard from several students during his tour, about 3D printing and design, advanced manufacturing technology process and welding. He even took a moment to race cars with the students in a game designed and built by students enrolled in the high performance technology certificate program.

Other stops planned for the day included meeting with students in the Junior Air Force ROTC program at Park View High School and Clarksville Elementary School to see how students in the elementary schools are being prepared for this new learning program.

Before departing for their next stop, Nichols also took a moment to explain how student progress will be tracked during their time in Mecklenburg County Public Schools. He said it is called MARi. It is a highly secure goal-based data storage system that functions as a “life-long career GPS,” tracking academic and skill development activities and certifications achieved by the student.

This was Qarni’s second visit to Mecklenburg County in less than a week. Last Thursday he was in Chase City at the Virginia School Board Association regional meeting where he talked about the goals his department has for education in Virginia, “less focus on SOL testing and more focus on career readiness and workforce development.”

The goal is to allow school divisions “a lot more flexibility in curriculum design” for their students,” he said.

Speaking after the meeting, Qarni said his department is looking at Mecklenburg County schools as a model as it goes through the consolidation process.

“I know some of the schools are trying to consolidate and there is a model in Mecklenburg that we are looking at to see how the state can provide support.”

He also explained his department’s overall approach to addressing education issues and policies. “Our approach is very regional based to see what the regional challenges are and also looking to see if there are any infrastructure issues that we can help the school division with. Then we have a high school redesign that just happened for the new incoming freshman class. They will be the first class experiencing the high school redesign and basically what it does is allow for more flexibility in the schools and region.”

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