Heath guardedly optimistic on chance for waiver

March 28, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer 

“I feel good about it,” Martinsville City Schools Superintendent Pam Heath said cautiously hours after making a case to the Virginia Board of Education for why the school division should qualify to open before Labor Day due to an innovative program. 

“They did not take any action today. It was first reading,” Heath said in a phone interview Thursday night as she returned home from Richmond. “It will be on the agenda (for second reading) at the April meeting.” At that time, the state board will make a decision, she said.

“We got some very positive feedback” on the school division’s application to open before Labor Day because of the Martinsville-Henry County STEM Pipeline Initiative, Heath said. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. 

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.

“They (the state board) are very positive about what we are trying to do,” Heath added.

However, she said, “They were very careful not to give false hope.” The board “re-emphasized it’s a very high bar to meet” to qualify for a waiver under state law, she said 

The key things a school division has to prove are that the program is essential and innovative, she said. 

“The innovative piece is there,” she said. The more challenging part will be proving that it is essential, and she believes it is — essential “not only for our students; it’s for the economic vitality of our community.”

She noted the school division’s application includes a Jan. 29 letter of support from Mark Heath, president/CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC). He wrote the MHC STEM Pipeline Initiative “will allow our region’s Pre-K-16 education institutions to continue and expand upon a regional effort to develop a highly skilled workforce pipeline in our area.” 

“For nearly two years, the EDC has been working directly with the Martinsville City and Henry County school divisions on workforce development in partnership with the New College Institute (NCI) and Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC). Based on feedback from current employers and workforce trends, we have identified in-demand skill sets,” he wrote.

Mark Heath wrote NCI already has established a high-school dual enrollment Academy for Engineering and Technology in which students earn college credit from PHCC and Virginia State University. He added the EDC works with local industries to then place these students in paid internships. 

“Through this unique collaboration of business and education partners, we have established the real beginnings of a STEM workforce pipeline that will support business in advanced manufacturing and other STEM-related fields,” he wrote,

“But our joint efforts must continue to expand if we are to truly build the necessary capacity within our regional workforce,” Mark Heath wrote. “The current median household income in Martinsville-Henry County combined is $32,349. The November 2013 unemployment rates in Martinsville and Henry County of 13.7 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively, remained well above the 5.0 percent statewide rate,” 

Mark Heath added: “Education is the cornerstone to economic development in this region, and we strongly support career development activities in the STEM areas beginning as early as elementary school. Both school divisions have begun such activities at the elementary and middle school levels, but they will need to leverage the staff and resources of our higher education partners in order to grow and strengthen the workforce pipeline our community desperately needs. This can only be accomplished if schools are allowed to operate on an academic calendar closely aligned with our college and university partners.”

Pam Heath said, “It’s almost like you have to have a preponderance of evidence to show it is essential,” she said. 

She said it’s clearly essential for high schools to have schedules aligned with higher education because of such things as dual enrollment and other programs in which faculties are shared. She said the more challenging part will be to prove that it is essential for K-8 schedules be aligned with higher education, though she believes it is for this program.

The division cannot have two separate schedules — opening before Labor Day for high school and after Labor Day for K-8 — because of such things as additional transportation costs, inconveniences for families and other problems, Pam Heath said. So the school division must open either before Labor Day or after Labor Day for the entire school division, she said. 

She said the state board was “helpful in giving suggestions.”

“I think we’ll have to go back and make our case even stronger,” she said. 

She noted that a number of other school divisions also appeared Thursday at the state board meeting to make their cases for waivers for innovative programs. “I do believe our presentation was unique in some ways from some others,” she said.

The state board has denied the last several applications for waivers on the basis of innovative programs, she said. 

Heath said she will be focusing on the economic aspect of why the pipeline is important because the law that requires school divisions to open after Labor Day stemmed from concerns that pre-Labor Day opening hurts tourism in Virginia, she said. That may be true in some parts of the state, but not in this part of the state, she said.

Angilee Downing, MCPS assistant superintendent for instruction, appeared with Pam Heath at the state board meeting.


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