Wampler: NCI well-positioned to seek funds under governor's budget plan

January 5, 2012

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

New College Institute is well-positioned to seek funding under Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed higher education package if his administration seeks creative initiatives for reaching the governor’s goal of having 100,000 more Virginians earn degrees in the next 15 years.

That’s according to retiring state Sen. William Wampler, who on Tuesday was named the new executive director of NCI effective Jan 11.

Wampler mentioned the idea in response to a question at the NCI board meeting Tuesday, and he elaborated in a phone interview Wednesday.

Wampler said he has not yet developed a plan, but at this point his thoughts are focusing on the possibility of NCI developing an initiative to strengthen STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in local middle schools and “building capacity” in the pipeline to higher education.

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the higher education package includes “$100 million per year to prepare Virginians for top jobs, boost job-creating research and innovation, make college degrees more affordable for students, and advance toward the governor’s goal of having 100,000 more Virginians earn degrees in the next 15 years.” The higher education package is part of McDonnell’s proposed two-year state budget.

According to the release, the higher education package includes, among other things:

• “$8.2 million per year to support other STEM-H (science, technology, engineering, math and health care) related initiatives at entities that support higher education”;

• “$20.4 million per year as incentive funding in support of public higher education institutions’ efforts to graduate students, especially if those students are STEM-H majors, graduate in less time than normal, and are considered an underrepresented group based on age and income.”

• “$5.1 million per year to support institution specific STEM-H, graduation and retention and economic development initiatives at public higher education institutions consistent with the goals in the Top Jobs legislation,” a package that passed the General Assembly last year.

Wampler said he believes McDonnell would look favorably on any initiative by NCI to complement what Martinsville and Henry County schools are doing in STEM education, starting in middle schools.

“There are lots of opportunities to create a pipeline and build capacity,” he said.

Speaking generally, he said some large school systems in Virginia are able to hire many more science teachers for middle schools than smaller school systems, which can offer just the basics.

Kathy Rogers, chairman of the Henry County School Board, said, “It’s (STEM) certainly part of our preparing kids for the 21st century.”

She said school systems around the country are faced with the challenge of finding qualified math and science teachers.

Pam Heath, superintendent of Martinsville Schools, described the problem as a one of supply and demand. “It’s very difficult. Math and science teachers can easily make more money in the private sector. They really have to be in the education field and have that calling to be willing to go into that kind of service.”

Rogers said Henry County Schools would welcome help with professional development of teachers and infrastructure. “We need good labs and things of that nature, and technology,” she said.

“Certainly (such an initiative) would be something Henry County Schools would support,” she said.

She added, “We’re all focused on getting more kids into AP (Advanced Placement classes), including science and math.”

Heath said such an initiative “would dovetail perfectly” with Martinsville Schools’ efforts in STEM areas. For instance, she said, Martinsville Middle School offers Algebra I in sixth grade if students are ready, “which is not a common practice.”

For several years, some students have left MMS having completed Algebra II, a course traditionally taken in high school, she said.

Heath also mentioned the middle school’s robotics team and that MMS is home to the only NASA Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) in Virginia.

“All these things work together. That (Wampler’s idea) would be wonderful,” Heath said.

She said complementing STEM efforts at MMS would strengthen students at that level for more rigorous work in high school and provide more opportunities for more real-world applications, such as business.

She said the school system already has a partnership with Patrick Henry Community College whereby students can graduate with an associate degree when they graduate from high school. “Potentially they could leave high school and go” to New College Institute, she said.

She said education is a key to economic development. “We’re the first step in creating a work force” with the necessary knowledge and skills, she said.

“We’ve got to help create college-going culture,” she added.


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