Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera. Photo by Susan Cameron.

Leaders in colleges and school systems along the Interstate 81 corridor between Bristol and Wytheville are working to open a lab school in Southwest Virginia. 

The lab school would be launched by Emory & Henry College’s School of Health Sciences and would involve school systems in Bristol, Washington County, Smyth County and Wythe County, Smyth County Superintendent Dennis Carter said Friday during a workshop about lab schools in Abingdon. The Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, Virginia Highlands Community College and Wytheville Community College would also be involved, he said. 

Carter, David Matlock, executive director of the Higher Education Center, and Smyth County Community Hospital CEO Dale Clark discussed the project with Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera and Deputy Secretary McKenzie Snow during one of 32 workshops offered during the United Way of Southwest Virginia’s 2022 Rural Summit. 

A lab school is a public, K-12 school that is meant to be an “innovative, high-quality education experience,” according to the state Department of Education. It is a partnership between higher education, employers, school divisions and communities. 

The leading partner must be a college, but it need not be a four-year institution, so community colleges and higher education centers now qualify. 

The school must focus on academic programs in an in-demand field such as computer science or sports medicine, according to the Department of Education. 

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, was the lead sponsor of the legislation authorizing lab schools. Earlier this year, $100 million was allocated by the General Assembly to pay for the start-up costs of the schools, which are a big part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s agenda, Guidera said. 

And they couldn’t be coming at a better time, Guidera said, just days after the release of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores on reading and math tests. The “Nation’s Report Card” revealed that Virginia fourth-graders recorded the largest declines in reading and math in the nation. 

“Our learning loss within math and reading was three times worse than that national average and the national average was not pretty,” the education secretary said. 

She added that the state’s “one-size-fits-all approach to learning” is failing its students. 

The governor’s plan is to open 20 lab schools within five years. Initially, the plan is to put a lab school in each of the eight Department of Education superintendent regions so the schools are spread across the state, Guidera said. 

As of three months ago, Guidera said 37 postsecondary institutions had expressed an interest in launching a lab school. 

The state now has six applications, and the hope is that a couple will open in September 2023, Guidera said. 

The Southwest Virginia project has not yet submitted an application, but the plan is for it to focus on health care. There is no deadline for applications. 

Matlock said the local lab school would provide “pathways and create pipelines to meet the workforce needs of Southwest Virginia.” 

Clark, with the Smyth County hospital, said the help is needed. Currently, there are 2,500 open positions in the Ballad Health system, he said. 

The Southwest Virginia lab school plan is for about 80 students in ninth through 12th grades, according to Carter. In its second year, the plan is to bring the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and that area of the region into the lab school, he said. 

Lab schools must be approved by the state Board of Education and unlike charter schools, would not require local approval. 

A process for selecting students has not been established, but Guidera said it will most likely be done through a “lottery system.” 

The education secretary said the hope is that interest is so high many lab schools will be built in the coming years. 

“This is about providing access to excellence and our hope is that there will be so much demand for these schools that we just keep building them and that we keep replicating success,” she said. 

She added that more money for lab schools will be sought during the 2023 General Assembly session. 

Because no future money is guaranteed, however, Carter, the Smyth County superintendent, said those developing the local lab school must find a way for it to eventually be sustainable on its own. 

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...