Editorial: Revamping Virginia high schools

Some high school students are clearly destined to go on to a four-year college or university after graduation. Others are on a path to attend a two-year college, then either transfer to a four-year school or go into the workforce.

But for some students with different kinds of skills and interests, it could be a very good choice to sidestep college altogether and go immediately into the workforce.

Our society sorely needs people with skills in many important lines of work.

There's a continuing need for electricians, plumbers, welders, truck drivers, mechanics, carpenters, heating and air conditioning specialists, with various ranges of computer skills necessary depending on the job. We also need nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, chefs, caterers, hair stylists and cosmetologists.

Our shipyards — among our largest local employers — often need skilled workers. We also must remember that things simply wear out, and it often takes a skilled, trained person to address the issue.

According to a study commissioned by the Virginia Community College System, 175,000 jobs statewide went unfilled in 2014 because of a lack of the right industry credentials. Those unfilled jobs, the report said, would have paid an average of $28 an hour, or slightly more than $58,000 a year.

In fact, the report said, more than half the 1.5 million jobs the state expects to add during the next six years will require a technical or industry credential rather than a college degree.

But it's more than just filling jobs. These kinds of skills often lead to people starting their own small businesses, which can grow and put other people to work.

So it came as welcome news this last legislative session when the late Sen. John Miller — in one of his last acts of public service — filed a bill promising to revamp the state's high schools so that more students are certified in the trades and career fields.

"This is a game changer," Miller told the Daily Press in late March. His bill was signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe on April 6, two days after the senator's untimely death.

It was only in recent years that the General Assembly began going down this path.

The legislature required that many students who began high school in 2013 — those earning a "standard diploma," amounting to about 35 percent of Virginia high school students — must earn a "career and technical education credential" before graduation. That could mean an industry certification or state-licensure exam.

But Miller's most recent bill greatly expands on that — adding the requirement for many more students across the state.

Most high school students in Virginia, or 51 percent, earn an "advanced studies diploma" — which includes additional course work and testing. Miller's bill requires that those getting such a diploma must either attain a career and technical education credential or take at least one honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate course.

To that end, Miller's legislation stipulates that "core skill sets" should be emphasized in the early high school years, with "multiple paths toward college and career readiness for students … in the later years of high school."

Under the legislation, the pathway the student picks "shall include opportunities for internships, externships, and credentialing," and the state must work with various stakeholders — to include businesses — to identify the skills the state needs.

This follows an increasing trend toward emphasizing the trades and career and technical education.

In the recent state budget, for example, McAuliffe and lawmakers agreed on an allocation of $25 million over two years for career training at the state's community colleges. At the federal level, meantime, Sen. Tim Kaine has been pushing new federal grants to address teacher shortages in the trades.

Miller's legislation closely mirrors a key recommendations from a recent state panel, "the Standards of Learning Innovation Committee." That committee emphasized core skills in the early high school years, followed by multiple paths to graduation and a "student portfolio that demonstrates mastery of essential skills."

This change is a very good thing. This is all about creating more options, unlocking students' potential, and allowing students to thrive in their chosen line of work.

We hear so many tales of students going to four-year colleges and being unable to land jobs after graduation — even as many of them face large student loan debts.

For some students, the skills offered by the trades and career and technical education could offer a surer road to the middle class and the American dream.

It's also clear that parents, students, teachers and guidance counselors must take part in the conversation on which pathway is best for each particular student.

Just because no one in a certain family has ever gone to college, for example, doesn't mean their current student should be steered away. Likewise, just because everyone in another family has gone to college doesn't mean that their current student should go.

Maybe that student's interest lies elsewhere. The point is that when it comes to education, "one size fits all" just doesn't work.

Thank you to Sen. John Miller to help us to recognize that, and lead us in this big step forward. Education was a huge part of the late senator's life's work, and changing the way our high schools operate is an important legacy.

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