Kingsport Times-News: Shift in economy means shift in how Wise County Schools prepare students
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Shift in economy means shift in how Wise County Schools prepare students

Mike Still • Mar 28, 2019 at 11:36 AM

WISE — Declining school enrollment and a move away from a coal-based economy are forcing changes in how Southwest Virginia school divisions are looking at their curriculums.

For Wise County Schools Superintendent Greg Mullins, those changes mean training students for college and for existing jobs as well as for fields that have not yet arrived in the area.

Mullins said that academics have been a strong point for the county for several years.

“In the last decade, just based strictly on (Virginia) Standards of Learning performance and tests, I think we’ve been in the top five in the state for the last half-dozen years,” Mullins said. “In a couple of those years, we were overall third in SOL test performance at the statewide level.”

The Standards of Learning curriculum and test assessment system arrived during former Gov. George Allen’s administration in the mid 1990s, and Mullins said that program fit with a nationwide movement for assessment standards.

“We’ve moved from what we’ve heard some people refer to it as the ‘leave no child untested era,’ ” Mullins said. “We’re fine with accountability. We feel like there should be accountability measures, but for determining whether a student is ready to go to work or go to college, we know that test scores are not the best indicator for that.”

Mullins said that the Virginia Department of Education in recent years has made some moves away from a heavy emphasis on test assessments. He pointed to the state’s new Five C’s initiative that focuses more on how students develop skills in communication, collaboration, critical and creative thinking and citizenship.

While the division’s Career-Technical Center has always provided an alternative path for students wanting to learn a trade instead of going to college, Mullins said the center’s role is growing in some ways.

Mullins pointed to Wise County’s efforts in attracting new industry and business while trying to hold onto existing businesses in the wake of a declining coal industry. At the same time, the county has seen enrollment drop from more than 8,000 students in the late 1990s to a projected 5,380 next school year.

Technical and career education is one way the school system can complement the county’s economic development efforts.

“We do know that a lot of jobs are awaiting those who have the appropriate skills,” Mullins said. “We want to make sure for those students that we have skill development programs that are synched with those available jobs.

“A number of our students have been able to stay here and earn a living, but we know a number of them have to seek outside job opportunities.”

The school system offers programs in cybersecurity, HVAC systems and a new pharmacy technician program arriving in August, Mullins said.

Even with providing career training opportunities, Mullins said, students who earn a four-year degree still have better overall potential for higher salaries. That means striking a balance in how the school system focuses its training efforts.

“We know the main objective for us is when these students leave us, they’re ready, career-ready or ready to move on to a two- or four-year college,” Mullins said.

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