Schools for the future: Part IV

Earlier in this series, I urged that Chesterfield invite neighboring jurisdictions to join in creating a regional governor’s school for highly-gifted students in mathematics, science, technology, and engineering.  

In doing so, the participating school divisions should seek a charter from the General Assembly providing that, as soon as the new school was up and running, it would become legally independent of the localities which created it.  

Instead remaining forever dependent – living in its parents’ basement, so to speak – the STEM governor’s school should have its own governing board; the right to admit students competitively, without reference to quotas from the participating localities; and the power automatically to transfer the full per pupil equivalent of one student’s tuition from the home locality of each student it educates.

These three provisions would end a perennial problem which causes instability in most governor’s schools, i.e., the fact that budget-cutting by any one large participating school division can bring an end to the whole enterprise.

A legally independent governor’s school would also establish something quite rare in our part of Virginia – a truly regional entity.  Central Virginia’s record of regional cooperation is disgraceful.  Regionalism has long been a particular bugaboo in Chesterfield, dating back to times when – as the smallest political entity in the Richmond metropolitan area – we were often bullied  or simply ignored.  

Today, the shoe is on the other foot.  Chesterfield is now more populous than any city or county in the region.  It’s past time we took the lead.

If a STEM governor’s school is long overdue, there are other excellent possibilities for regional schools.   High among these would be highly selective, world-class schools for students interested in critical careers which will never become obsolete or be exported to other countries.

One of these will be familiar to my long-time readers.  For twelve years now, I have been urging that every region in Virginia create a “Commonwealth School” – a small, selective, military-style school for students interested in careers in law enforcement, fire-fighting, emergency services, the military, and other public service careers which involve wearing a uniform and doing active, often dangerous, work as part of a team.

The advantages of a Commonwealth School should be obvious to anyone.  Society needs police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and soldiers.  It always will.  We seek to attract – indeed, spend considerable money to attract – well-qualified people to fill these indispensable roles.  Yet, in a society in which money is accorded far too much importance, these difficult, often risky jobs are not well-paid.

Attracting some of our best and brightest to these careers would be easier if we started when they were young.  A Commonwealth School serving grades 8 - 12 would appeal to young people at an age when uniforms, teamwork and an active lifestyle are particularly appealing.

Five years in a disciplined environment – stressing physical fitness, mental flexibility, and teamwork – would produce outstanding young men and women who, even if they changed their career goals, would be headed for success in any field.

And those who used their training to serve society would be the cream of the crop – which would benefit us all.

While a Commonwealth School would be the right place to start, there are certainly other possibilities.  America produces far too few nurses.  For decades, we’ve been using higher salaries to attract English-speaking nurses from other countries.  But as the rest of the world catches up to us in terms of wealth, this solution will be less and less workable.  

A regional school for nursing, located adjacent to a large hospital, would offer young men and women a chance to begin training for a career which will always be vital, and which cannot, by its nature, be exported.  

Farther down the road, I can imagine other regional, career-oriented schools – including one for young people interested in becoming teachers.  

My point is that the small, focused, selective school has been shown to be the most effective model for secondary education.  They give students a sense of purpose, of belonging, of community.

These are the sorts of schools kids long for.

Years ago, I was invited to talk with some movers-and-shakers from Richmond who were interested in improving public education – though they had no actual experience with educating young people.

I asked if any of them had read one of the Harry Potter books.  None had, and they pooh-poohed the idea that an adult could learn anything from such stuff.

And I just grinned and shook my head.  They didn’t get it.

In an era of computers and cell-phones, millions and millions of young people have fallen in love with Hogwarts Academy and read all seven, lengthy books.

I don’t think that’s because they all planned to become magicians.  As much as anything, I think, it’s because Hogwarts – small, focused, selective, career-oriented Hogwarts – is where they wanted to go to school.

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