Some of the county’s most veteran teachers are filling school and county leaders’ inboxes this week with complaints over changes to courses at C.S. Monroe Technology Center, the county’s 40-year-old vocational-technical school.
As Monroe Tech’s programs move from a cramped building in Leesburg to the new Academies of Loudoun campus south of town this August, about two dozen of the courses will be cut in half, from one-year, 36-week courses to one semester, 18-week courses.
That has teachers, some of whom have worked there for 20 years or more, worried that the students will not get enough hours to earn certifications needed to enter the workforce or have the course time to do internships and other on-the-job training. Monroe has been held up as a national model, in part for its coursework that allows students to earn professional industry certificates in welding, masonry, carpentry, auto repair, computer engineering, nursing, cosmetology and several other fields.
Company executives, including ProJet Aviation’s Julie O’Brien, have called and emailed Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) to raise a flag that condensing the courses would leave no time for students to get real-world experiences at their businesses. Fire chiefs have also told her a proposed change in admissions would no longer give priority to student volunteer firefighters, which could jeopardize the fire companies’ partnership with Monroe Tech.
She also joins teachers and parents in their concern about a new $35 admissions fee for all Academies of Loudoun programs, including Monroe Tech. Administrators have said the fee will be waived for students from low-income households.
“There are very real concerns. … The thing that makes these teachers proud is that their students can graduate high school with a certificate and get a job paying $60,000-$70,000,” Umstattd said. “We’ve been told that there is a nationwide concern that there is a need for more technical training for skilled-labor jobs. My fear is that these changes will keep a number of students from getting good jobs out of high school.”
School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) said she’s received “pages and pages of emails” detailing similar concerns about changes she “had no idea about.” She asked administrators for an explanation this morning during a meeting of the Instruction and Curriculum Committee, which she chairs.
Ashley Ellis, assistant superintendent of instruction, told Turgeon and the three other board members gathered for the committee meeting that changes are coming to Monroe Tech, but she does not expect them to hurt any students’ ability to earn workforce certifications.
She and Career and Technical Education Supervisor Lhe Smith ran down a list of 23 courses that will be adjusted from a one-year, 36-week course to a semester, 18-week course. Those courses include auto collision repair, auto servicing, building construction, culinary arts, EMT, firefighter, graphics communications, HVAC, masonry, nursing, TV production and welding.
Ellis said the Virginia Department of Education’s hourly requirements for career and technical education classes are far less than what Loudoun has been providing its students. She also noted that course trend data showed that fewer than half of Monroe students were returning to take a second year of a course.
Turgeon asked her whether any of the changes would hinder students from getting certifications in trade fields.
“We do not see that as a concern,” Ellis said. “The curriculum is still strong, and we feel our students will still meet the credentials that they need.”
Turgeon said she doesn’t understand how a course could be just as strong when half of the class time is eliminated. “Loudoun County has never gone to the minimum state requirements for anything. … We may be going above and beyond, but I feel like we’re providing an opportunity for students who are choosing a different path than the college path.”
She asked Ellis to provide board members with a detailed analysis of the impact of the changes, including business partnerships and certifications that may be in jeopardy.
The popularity of Monroe Tech is in part what promoted Loudoun school leaders more than a decade ago to talk about opening a campus like the Academies of Loudoun. It was designed to allow the vocational school’s programs to enroll double the number of students, closer to 1,000. But the campus is also designed to provide space for two other programs: the Academy of Science, another popular existing program that has needed more space, and the newly created Academy of Engineering and Technology.
School Board member Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said Loudoun County has provided students many more career and technical education course hours than most Virginia school systems. “When you think about it, some students are attending every other day for two years. That’s one-eighth over their high school career is in career and technical education electives. That’s not common.”
He also told the staff that now is the time to reevaluate how the school system teaches career and technical education. As part of the transition, the program’s name is changing to Monroe Advanced Technical Academy. “Going from Monroe Tech into MATA was always planned as more than a name change and rebranding but an analysis of our career and technical education programs, so I’m actually glad we’re taking a deep dive,” Hornberger said.
But several teachers at Monroe Tech fear that reducing the course hours will mean fewer students graduating high school with the industry certifications they need to enter the workforce.
A longtime Monroe teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said he’s already seen the negative effects of the changes. The course he teaches has already been reduced from a two-year to one-year program, as of this year. When students took the course for two years, three-fourths of his students passed the test to be certified in that field. This year, he thinks just 10 or 20 percent of his students will pass.
“To get to the skill level to get these certifications, they need more time to specialize and hone their skills and get confidence on the machinery and equipment,” he said. “I know they say the state allows for fewer hours, but I’ve never taught my kids the minimum.”
He’s also concerned Monroe students will no longer have the course experience to compete in SkillsUSA, which hosts national competitions for students entering the skilled workforce. Loudoun students have fared well in those competitions, winning state and national awards, as well as serving as officers for the organization.
Another Monroe teacher said that new staff members hired to lead the transition have made the career and technical education programs less of a priority. “We feel like the blue collar jobs are being pushed out and they’re doing whatever they can to make this a Vulcan academy,” the teacher said. “At this point, we don’t want to move. We are so disgusted.”
There has been a lot of recent turnover in the positions tasked with leading the new Academies of Loudoun. Ellis, who oversees all of the school system’s instruction, was hired as the assistant superintendent of instruction in June 2017; and Lhe Smith was hired as Career and Technical Education supervisor in June 2016 to replace Shirley Bazdar, who retired in 2016 after 15 years in the post. Smith had previously served as assistant principal at Monroe Tech for one year. In July 2016, Tinell Priddy was hired as the first principal of the Academies of Loudoun after serving as an assistant principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.
Brenda Jewel credits Monroe Tech with helping her son and her husband find their passions and hone their skills to enter the workforce. She said her son hated school until this year, when he enrolled in masonry classes at Monroe Tech. Now he’s helping to build a house in Leesburg and dreaming up plans to build a patio at their home.
“These programs are for those students who are out of the box. They’re intelligent, but just maybe not good test takers or maybe learn better hands on,” Jewel said. “When you need a new roof, a new home, HVAC is out, you’re calling these kids who have these trade skills.”
Her husband, Kevin, got his career start at Monroe Tech, in a data processing class in 1984. “He got the skills he needed to allow him to gain a position with the federal government and he’s been there for 32 years. These are the success stories.”
Hornberger and Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who also sit on the instruction committee, voted to talk more about the proposed changes in the ad hoc committee on the Academies of Loudoun. That meeting is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, at the school administration building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn.
Turgeon said this morning’s meeting was just the start of the questions she has about the pending changes. She told staff, “This conversation will go well past today.”