Friday, April 26, 2013

STEM Education Demand Fulfillment and Workforce Development Crisis Growing in Loudoun

Loudoun County Public Schools has promoted its vision for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for many years. Per the most recent web information, "Loudoun County Public Schools has many exemplary programs designed to answer the call for STEM education. The Loudoun Governor's Career and Technical Academy at Monroe Technology Center (MTC) and the Academy of Science (AOS) at Dominion High School are specialized programs that meet these goals. Additionally, LCPS offers students a variety of STEM courses and opportunities that are rigorous, demanding, and help students develop skills required for the 21st century."  This includes a new focus on "integrated STEM education for all LCPS students".

What's not mentioned is Loudoun's participation in the regional Governor's magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) in Alexandria (Fairfax County).  Loudoun, like other jurisdictions around the nationally-renown school, invests about $13,000 per student in annual tuition for students who are accepted to attend.  Over the past decade, the number of Loudoun students qualified to attend this extremely rigorous, competitive program has hovered somewhere around 40-50 students, making the long trek to Alexandria each day to participate in STEM programs not available anywhere else in the entire state.

The investment has paid dividends – for example, of the 14 students from Loudoun recently named National Merit Semi-Finalists, 6 attend TJHSST. Loudoun's participation in the Governor's school program has helped attract many families, businesses and economic development benefits over the years, as a participating jurisdiction supportive not only of VA's growing list of STEM academies, but also of Virginia's "Governor's School Program" (TJHHST is an example, serving most of Northern Virginia).

A perfect storm, however, has developed with respect to Loudoun student and family demand for STEM education outgrowing the supply.  Primarily the result of very significant demographic shifts over the past 10 years (particularly in Eastern Loudoun, supported by the newest "cottage industry" of "TJ Test Prep"-style tutoring), hundreds more Loudoun students (about a thousand in this past year) are applying for advanced STEM offerings at the Loudoun Academy of Science program (which only offers about 65 slots each year), and for one of usually about 50 slots at TJHSST - though this year, that number increased significantly to 72, an unprecedented number of acceptances.  Only about 130 very advanced, deserving Loudoun STEM students are able to pursue rigorous programs that meet their capabilities, out of the rapidly growing numbers who apply.

Half of this opportunity for Loudoun students will shortly disappear – the TJHSST renovation activities are (per Fairfax County) requiring participating jurisdictions to pony up support (Loudoun's bill is close to $11M) or drop out of the program.  While Loudoun may support current and the newest students (i.e. the next 2 years), future support is most likely to end, under the current political posturing.  Fairfax County's "capstone" to its vaunted Gifted program (Advanced Academic Program), i.e. TJHSST, is under significant internal County pressure to offer more slots to its own growing population of deserving County residents (and children of registered voters).  Loudoun has no such capstone currently (nor comparable gifted programs), and it will be many years, perhaps decades until this is made possible (through perhaps expansion of the AOS, expansion of the MTC, a slowdown in new school construction, etc.).

So here we stand, with no clear solution – rapidly increasing demand for advanced STEM in Loudoun, a significant, probable loss among the already slim set of offerings, and rapidly growing momentum and requirements in the County to provide current and future businesses and investors with a STEM-educated workforce – to maintain Loudoun's self-designated role as "D.C.'s Technology Corridor". As well, private offerings are non-existent; there are no private High Schools close to Loudoun offering the breadth and depth of curriculum as is available at TJHSST (or AOS), and recent attempts to create a new "Math and IT" charter school failed miserably.

Notwithstanding the political ideal bubbling within Fairfax regarding TJHSST reverting from a regional, Governor's school to a Fairfax County HS for the Gifted, it does seem as though several avenues of solution don't seem yet to have been explored – that maintain a Return on Investment (ROI) benefit for all Northern Virginia and VA taxpayers, educators, colleges and universities and businesses.

For example, TJHSST is indeed a very old, run-down facility, and requires upgrade – simply to continue to meet public school occupancy standards for any Northern Virginia region.  This expense, it would seem, is solely Fairfax's to bear – and Loudoun taxpayers indeed shouldn't be responsible for these costs.  The additional "accoutrements" (i.e. specialty labs, equipment, faculty, etc.) implemented to accommodate TJHSST's status as a Governor's STEM Magnet School, however, are those that in reality might be proper reason for co-investment by all participating jurisdictions (and grounds for more input from the State) – since these aren't available anywhere else.

(Update - it does appear Loudoun is questioning the State regarding whether local taxpayer funds can be used for capital expenses in another jurisdiction).

Also, while TJHSST is supported in many ways by the local and regional business community – much more can probably be done by each jurisdiction to persuade businesses and Universities to more aggressively support (and perhaps brand) elements of the TJHSST Capital Improvement Plan. Additionally, options for families or businesses to pay student tuition (outside Fairfax) directly, or through business-supported scholarships, can be developed.

What other solutions or forums for input, should be addressed, not only regarding Loudoun and TJHSST, but other near-term solutions entirely within Loudoun?

(Update - the Loudoun County Public School System recently put out a survey, underway till the end of May, that asks the question regarding preference for "participation in TJ" vs. "prefer to expand our own Academy of Science (AOS) program and slowly phase out our participation in TJ".  This second choice of expansion will require many, many years and significant investment to accomplish, as the AOS program and TJ aren't close to being equivalent - AOS is new, small, health sciences focused and part-time, while TJ is the opposite, along obviously with its national and international recognition built over several decades. )

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