The New College Institute in Martinsville. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.
The New College Institute in Martinsville. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

The state has so far awarded 10 planning grants to higher education institutions proposing lab schools – publicly funded K-12 schools intended to prepare students for Virginia’s evolving workforce needs, including jobs in health care, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and computer science. 

But an application from the New College Institute in Martinsville for initial funds to plan a lab school has been rejected.

A letter dated Feb. 9 in response to NCI’s application said it didn’t provide enough information on how the proposed school would differ from similar existing offerings in the area’s public schools. “The laboratory environment of the proposed Lab School is neither described nor articulated. The goal or focus of the proposed Lab School is unclear,” the letter stated. It was signed by Elizabeth Schultz, the assistant state superintendent of public instruction, who was appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in January 2022.

The application also lacked details, the letter said, about how students would be recruited and how NCI would expand an initial high school format to include 6th through 8th grades within its first two years of operation.

The state-funded New College Institute had proposed the creation of COLLABSCHOOL@NCI, offering students STEM classes including agri-science, computer science, cybersecurity, health and healthcare informatics, and specialized equipment maintenance training, according to its application. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade from throughout region 6, which includes Martinsville along with Henry, Patrick, Floyd, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties, would be selected via lottery to attend classes starting in fall 2023. The application requested $175,000 for the initial development of the school.

“NCI is continuing its planning efforts for a Lab School as detailed in the Governor’s Initiative.  It is unclear [if] a resubmission of a planning grant application will occur at this time,” said Christina Reed, assistant director of finance and operations at NCI, in an email. Reed has also served as interim director of the education center since July 2022.

NCI has not communicated its next steps to the College Partnership Laboratory Schools Committee, according to emailed comments from Schultz.

In June 2022, the General Assembly allocated $100 million of the state’s budget toward funding lab schools as alternatives to public K-12 schools. The schools are intended to have a particular focus, such as science and technology. Two- and four-year colleges and higher education centers can apply for a share of funding to launch a lab school, including up to $200,000 for an initial planning grant and up to $1 million toward establishing the school. 

The Board of Education began receiving applications in late September 2022. Southwest Virginia has seen several proposals get preliminary funding. 

  • Emory & Henry College had its application for a $200,000 planning grant approved earlier this month. Its proposed Southwest Virginia Healthcare Excellence Academy Laboratory School – known as SWVA HEALS – will focus on health care careers starting with 10th grade and expanding to include 11th and 12th grades. The school would enroll students from Washington, Smyth and Wythe counties with classes in Abingdon and Marion, according to the initial proposal, with classes starting in January 2024.
  • Mountain Gateway Community College was awarded $116,000 for its proposed Information Technology Academy, with curriculum to focus on cybersecurity, cloud computing and IT technical support, according to application documents reviewed by Cardinal News.
  • The University of Lynchburg’s proposal for a K-5 Innovation Lab School, which would focus on science literacy, has received preliminary approval. Also in Lynchburg, Central Virginia Community College’s application for a lab school focusing on career technical education (CTE) for students in grades 11 and 12 is pending.
  • In Charlottesville, the University of Virginia has received an initial award for a middle school focusing on STEM and computer science. 

In addition, two applications have moved beyond the initial phase and are being considered for approval for full launch: high schools proposed by James Madison University in Harrisonburg and by Southside Virginia Community College in Alberta.

The College Partnership Laboratory School Committee reviews applications and makes recommendations, but final say rests with the Board of Education. 

NCI announced in August that it planned to open a lab school. “The NCI Lab School plan will center around expanding its successful program of combining long-term industry partnerships and experiential learning/mentorship experiences with regional businesses to produce education pathways that will result rewarding and high paying careers for its students,” the announcement stated. 

The higher education and career training center has faced scrutiny in recent months, with a Martinsville Bulletin investigation chronicling “dwindling” programming and leadership challenges. Joe Sumner will be the fifth director of NCI since its inception in 2006; he starts on Feb. 28. Sumner declined to comment on the lab school application.        

NCI’s application isn’t the only one to face challenges, though according to Schultz, it’s the only one that has been formally denied. 

Schultz said institutions can request technical assistance as they prepare to submit materials at the planning grant or lab school application stage. “Depending upon information gleaned from the first read of their submission, [Director of STEM and Innovation Brendan Albon] and I have contacted applicants where there appears to be an omission or clarification needed.” At that point, she said, applicants can submit missing information or update their application before it’s reviewed and scored by the committee.

Virginia State University in Petersburg submitted an application for two potential schools focusing on STEM programming for grades pre-K through 5 and for grades 6 through 12. The two schools would enroll students in Petersburg, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George. That planning grant proposal was not immediately approved.

“Discussions have occurred with the state and revisions have been made to the proposal in collaboration with VSU, School Division Administrators and District Partners,” Petersburg City Public Schools superintendent Tamara Sterling said in a statement to Cardinal News. “It is my hope our proposal will be approved in the coming months.” 

Sterling said the most recent revisions included “professional development strategies to better engage students, parents, and teachers.”

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at or 540-384-1313.

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at