Mountain Gateway Community College. Courtesy of the college.
Mountain Gateway Community College. Courtesy of the college.

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Teenagers living within Mountain Gateway Community College’s service area may one day graduate high school not only with an associate degree but work certificates in information technology fields that command starting salaries of $60,000 or more.

That’s the vision of a proposed lab school being designed by the Clifton Forge college, in partnership with the school divisions of Alleghany, Bath, Botetourt, Buena Vista and Rockbridge, and — hopefully one day — Amazon.

Mountain Gateway recently received a $116,000 state planning grant to launch a lab school offering work certificates in Cloud Computing, Cybersecurity, and IT Technical Support. It’s one of three planning grants the state has awarded for lab schools. The other two are at the University of Mary Washington and a collaboration between George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. A group headed by Emory & Henry College is planning a lab school in Southwest Virginia that will focus on health care but that application has not been formally filed yet.

“There are lots of great jobs in those areas, and these are all jobs that people can do remotely too,” said Ben Worth, Mountain Gateway vice president of academic affairs. “We’re envisioning a future where students can do this work, and then even while they’re still in high school put some of these skills to use supporting either their high schools or local businesses. We’re really interested in creating internship opportunities.”

According to CompTIA IT Salary Calculator, the overall median salary for an IT Support Specialist is $49,770; for a Cybersecurity Specialist/Engineer, it’s $102,600. 

Under Mountain Gateway’s lab school initiative, students will graduate high school with a certificate in one of these three fields as well as an associate degree that would then require just two or three years of undergraduate classes to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Worth says the lab school will strengthen remote learning opportunities as well: “The travel time to our main campus is a burden for any of the students that we would want to serve. So we’re looking at ways that we can use online delivery to cut down on some of the travel so that students could do their work at their high school, and then still be able to participate in all their high school activities, athletics and student clubs and things like that.”

Championed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin — and awarded $100 million by the General Assembly early this year — lab schools are partnerships between institutions of higher learning and local school divisions. 

Each is crafted to focus on innovative learning models and the workforce needs of the surrounding communities. So while Mountain Gateway’s will focus on IT training, a lab school proposed by Emory & Henry will prepare students for healthcare careers. 

“Our system of one-size-fits-all education right now is not working for lots of kids and we know we need to build better connections between what children are learning in school and what the world outside of school needs,” Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera recently told WRIC. “We’re really thrilled with the response we’re getting.”

Mountain Gateway’s planning grant will primarily be used to hire a grant coordinator to research and write a full application in 2023 with the goal of enrolling high schoolers for the fall 2024 term, said Tamra Lipscomb, assistant professor of Information Systems Technology. 

“Amazon is very generous with helping with the curriculum and providing things for students,” Lipscomb said. “So we’re just starting to roll this out, but they’ve been fabulous with just connecting with educators around the system.”

Mountain Gateway’s goal is to enroll 20 to 30 high schoolers — or five to six from each school division — in the inaugural fall 2024 term. Eventually, the lab school could accommodate 80 students or more.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see what our local schools really want as well, and what their students are desiring for their career path,” said Lipscomb. “That’s why I’m excited about this planning grant, because it gives us that opportunity to actually plan for the future.”

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who...