Lawmakers, Educators Consider Virginia's Future Lawmakers, Educators Consider Virginia's Future

Virginia nonprofit recently secured a grant for $10.8 million toward STEM training.

SOUTH BOSTON – It’s hard to find funding during a pandemic. Even if you’re planning to train teachers, the money just isn’t there, especially for rural areas. Thankfully a $10.8 million dollar Education Innovation and Research grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Virginia Ed Strategies, a South Boston-based nonprofit, will make that possible.

Gov. Ralph Northam travelled to Mecklenburg County on Feb. 10, where he made the announcement. 

Working in partnership, VDOE and Virginia Ed Strategies will create and implement the Professional Learning by Choice Community — or CHOICE — project to provide high-quality, teacher-directed professional development opportunities and experiences for up to 2,100 middle and high school science, mathematics and computer science teachers.

While the focus of the grant is rural teachers, there will be three cohorts and the third will be inclusive of urban teachers as well. The grant is not to be used for school systems to train their teachers, but rather will be utilized to allow teachers to self-assess and self-select their own professional development outside of what is generally provided by a school district.

Supporting the Project

Also supporting the CHOICE project are James Madison University, the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Virginia ASCD, CodeVA, the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, the Virginia School Consortium for Learning and the Commonwealth Learning Partnership.

“I am thrilled to have such a wealth of knowledge and expertise working with our organization on this new initiative,” said Virginia Ed Strategies CEO Jennifer Stevens. “These partners will provide critical guidance in developing and implementing the tools and resources of the CHOICE community, and their collaboration will no doubt be instrumental to the success of this project.”

Dr. James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction, commended the nonprofit for securing the funds.

“Our teachers have worked extremely hard during this pandemic and have truly been heroes,” Lane said. “And this opportunity not only provides them those opportunities to be trained in STEM fields, but the notion of choice and trusting our teachers as professionals to choose the opportunities where they need to learn best is what really makes this opportunity special.”

A Future Workforce for Partners

The governor praised Virginia’s strong workforce, which the grant could help ensure the future of through the children. Even through he said over 1.5 million residents filed for unemployment during the COVID crisis, he noted that current unemployment percentages are under 5%. 

“I talked to a lot of businesses that are growing in Virginia, but also a lot of businesses that want to come to Virginia. The reason that we’re doing so well economically is because of our talented workforce,” Northam said. “And we need to keep that going.”

The future state workforce currently resides in the classroom.

“We need to continue to train our children for the 21st century jobs. And so we had to ask ourselves, what are those jobs?” Northam said. “And I know you all have heard us talk about STEM. I add a couple letters. I call it STEAM-H. That’s an Eastern Shore thing. But science, technology, engineering, the arts, math and healthcare. Those are where the jobs of the 21st century are.”

The governor mentioned career examples including cyber security, unmanned aerial systems, computer technology, data collection and data analysis. 

“That’s what we need to train our children for if we’re going to keep our economy vibrant and strong,” Northam said. “We know that in order to do that, we have to have the teachers that can educate these children in these STEM related fields.”

Lane expressed similar sentiments. 

“The jobs of the future are going to be in STEM fields,” Lane said. “The best paying jobs are going to be in STEM fields and Virginia needs to remain ahead of that so that we can continue to make sure that our graduates have great opportunities after high school and after college.”

Getting There 

In addition to teachers in the classroom, Northam pushed for more professionals within school buildings there to lend a helping hand. He specifically named counselors. 

“I’ve always liked to ask children whenever I interact with them, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And obviously some of them haven’t thought about it. The boys, they want to play in the NFL, which you might expect. Girls want to be teachers and veterinarians. They are obviously more visionary and more thoughtful,” Northam said. “But counselors are going to be able to help with that as we move forward. But we need to get our children excited, especially about the STEM-related fields.”

Northam also noted a need to concentrate on vocational and technical training, even in grade school. 

“Something that I’ve always been an advocate for is, you know, not everybody needs to go to a four-year college or university,” Northam said. “And so we need to make sure that families understand that, encourage our children to get into these STEM-related fields, vocational and technical training.”

Lane expressed excitement over the opportunities the grant presented.

“The ability to expand this, not to just a few localities, but throughout the state so that every community has the opportunity to have great STEM opportunities for children is so, so important,” Lane said.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com