Local Commentary

Senator Dick Saslaw’s Richmond Report

saslaw-fcnpWe are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week in Virginia. I join the Governor and Secretary Anne Holton in applauding those dedicated to Virginia’s children and molding them into their best. Thank you for your commitment to excellence, your patience and your perseverance. The adopted biennial budget is a step in the right direction for teacher compensation and education in general. It’s long overdue but sets the priority for future funding.

This month I would like to focus on high school innovation and building a 21st century workforce in our Commonwealth. Increasingly, we know that the keys to Virginia’s continued economic success must include diversifying our economy, fostering an entrepreneurial culture that will enhance job creation, investing early in the education pipeline, and addressing gaps between existing workforce skills and high-demand middle-skill jobs. For example, middle-skill jobs account for 49 percent of Virginia’s labor market, but 40 percent of the state’s workforce is trained to the middle-skill level. Put simply, we must do a better job of creating and resourcing innovative industry certification and career training pathways for our high school students.

In Virginia, much groundwork has been laid in recent years with great momentum for the future. In 2008, we developed a career pathways strategic plan to bridge business and education in the 21st century. In 2010 and 2011, the work continued with the College & Career Readiness Initiative and the Top Jobs legislation. In 2013, we mapped the Virginia Workforce System’s 24 programs to improve coordination.

In 2014, Governor McAuliffe’s executive order established the New Virginia Economy Workforce Initiative and the General Assembly responded with the establishment of the bipartisan Standards of Learning Committee. The Committee’s focus is to ensure Virginia has a school accountability system that is fair, balanced, and supportive of preparing our students for success beyond their high school years. One of several early recommendations of this group was to look towards redesigning high school. The General Assembly supported this work with five high school innovation grants in FY 2016, that encourage practices connected to individualized instruction, workforce development, alignment with higher education, and blended learning.

Here in Northern Virginia, one of the first year grants, Global STEM Challenges is based at Edison High School in Fairfax County. This is a three-year, interdisciplinary program in which students rotate freely between subjects and classrooms as they prepare for college and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The program will offer industry certification while integrating computer science within the curriculum.

The growing importance of cultivating workforce skills in high school students can also be seen here in the 35th District at the Governor’s STEM Academy at George C. Marshall High School. The academy’s objectives include, among others: increase the number of industry certifications earned by academy students by 5 percent each year, 95 percent of academy students will complete the Workplace Readiness Skills and Career Technical Education course competencies, 75 percent of graduating seniors will create an electronic career portfolio, and all qualified and eligible students will participate in a valuable internship, job shadowing or work-based learning experience with local business and industry partners.

The impressive list of objectives speaks to the significant progress that’s already been made at some places in Virginia. However, we must work to translate “pockets” of innovation and excellence to equity of such opportunities in every school division in Virginia. We must ensure that every high school student in the Commonwealth has a pathway to earn the skills necessary to compete and thrive in a 21st century global economy.

I am also pleased to report we will be funding 1,820 slots at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Additionally, bold steps have been taken in our community college system as well.

Finally, I want to extend best wishes to all Mothers this week as we celebrate their special day.

Senator Saslaw represents the 35th District in the Virginia State Senate. He may be emailed at district35@senate.virginia.gov.