by Adele Uphaus
MANAGING EDITOR AND CORRESPONDENT
Specialty centers are coming to Stafford County high schools in the fall of 2024.
The School Board at its regular meeting on Tuesday approved a program of studies for high school that includes launching three specialty centers that will provide “enhanced four-year courses of study, preserve and integrate existing high school programs, and provide meaningful educational options and career pathways for students,” according to a press release from the school division.
By providing students with the specialty center option, “We are uniquely positioned to re-engage our kids and bring them back into the fold in a meaningful way,” division superintendent Thomas Taylor said at Tuesday’s meeting.
The first three specialty centers to open will be the Community Health and Medical Professions (or CHAMP) Center at Brooke Point High School; the Leadership, Education and Public Service (or LEAP) Center at Mountain View High School; and the Engineering Professions and Industries of Construction (or EPIC) Center at Stafford High School.
Each center will offer a pathway for students who want to enter the workforce immediately after graduation and a pathway for those who want to pursue higher education or further training.
Admission will be by lottery and is open to all Stafford County rising 9th graders. The application window will open this week, according to the press release.
The School Board came close to deferring implementation of the specialty centers. A motion by Falmouth District representative Sarah Chase to defer, with no specified pickup date, would have passed had not Elizabeth Warner, Griffis-Widewater representative, changed her mind.
Warner said she was on “team defer” for “a long time” until she started thinking about the timeline. There are still nine months before the specialty centers launch, she said, and if they are deferred, it will be a minimum of 21 months.
She said she doesn’t think Stafford can afford to wait that long, noting that the academy model, which creates a smaller “school within a school” with students attending classes with the same cohort and same teachers for four years, has been shown to decrease absenteeism and improve student engagement.
“The benefits outweigh the risks, and the students who benefit the most are the students at the highest risk (of not completing high school) – the students we are trying to assist,” Warner said.
Chase, explaining her motion to defer, said she supports the concept but thinks “next fall is too soon.”
She said she doesn’t think there has been enough communication with families about pending changes to the program of studies and, especially, not enough engagement with the Board of Supervisors, which funds the school division.
According to an August planning budget for the specialty centers, the division estimates the first-year cost of the LEAP Center at Mountain View to be $246,950 and the sustaining annual cost after the first four years to be $9,685.
The first-year cost of the EPIC Center at Stafford is estimated at $227,250, with an eventual sustaining cost of $24,710, according to the planning budget.
Board members Maureen Siegmund and Patricia Healy also voted to defer the specialty centers.
“I love the curriculum we have mapped out, as long as we can provide them with what they need,” Siegmund said. “I don’t know if we have the staff or resources …(to) deliver (the curriculum) appropriately.”
But board member Alyssa Halstead said fear of failure is not a reason for the division not to try something new and innovative.
“I think our kids deserve this opportunity sooner rather than later,” she said. “They have been through enough, and that’s why they deserve it. I have faith in our staff.”
Halstead also said she thinks “it is time for us to place a heavy burden on the Board of Supervisors to step up and bring our school system into the 21st century.”
Maya Guy, the only Black member of the School Board, said she is excited about the specialty centers because of how they could benefit the low income, minority and otherwise “marginalized” student populations.
“Dr. Taylor has brought some amazing people on to do this. I trust them and believe in them and if they screw up, I will call them out,” Guy said. “But let’s have some confidence in our staff that hasn’t failed us yet.”
Several members of the community also spoke in support of the specialty centers during public comments earlier in the meeting.
Vernon Green, founder and CEO of the Stafford-based cybersecurity firm GCubed, Inc., said the specialty centers could supply him with qualified local talent to hire.
“I implore you to please move forward with the academies vote, because it is important to industry,” he said.
Parent Molly Denham said Stafford needs to stop postponing new investments.
“I don’t believe we can effectively defer this,” she said. “When we continually kick a can down the road, it never gets picked up.”
The division has scheduled information sessions on the new specialty academies in coming weeks.
Specialty centers for business and entrepreneurship, aviation and logistics, and visual and performing arts are being planned to open at the other county high schools in future years.