School system administrators told a room full of teachers, parents, students and School Board members Tuesday night that their frustrations over changes to C.S. Monroe Technology Center have been heard.
School leaders received a slew of emails and phone calls starting last month as word spread that about two dozen of the courses would be cut in half, from one-year to two-year programs. In some cases, that would prevent students from getting the experience needed to earn professional industry certificates. Monroe is considered one of the best vocational schools in the nation because it gives students a chance to earn the certificates they need to enter the workforce.
The changes come as Monroe prepares to move into the new Academies of Loudoun building next fall. The move was designed to allow the vocational school’s programs to enroll nearly double the number of students, closer to 1,000. It will share the campus with the Academy of Science and the newly created Academy of Engineering and Technology.
During an Academies of Loudoun ad hoc committee meeting Tuesday, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ashley Ellis worked her way down a list of the concerns raised in recent weeks, including the proposed reduction to Monroe course hours and changes to admissions criteria. With each, she explained whether the change would be reversed or, in many cases, why it would stand.
“There’s no question that moving into the new facility, being a part of a group of academies, will bring changes. But we want to maintain the excellence of Monroe Technology programs,” Ellis said. “I know we haven’t necessarily done a great job of that and we are working to fix it.”
Two weeks ago, she had told School Board members that 23 courses would be reduced from two-year programs to one-year programs. She told them Tuesday that for three of those—welding, graphic communications and auto servicing technology—her staff decided to offer an additional year. Level I and II courses will be taught in the first year, and students have the option to take a Level III course in a second year.
In an effort to offer more students seats in Monroe programs, students will not get as much class time or hands-on experience, she acknowledged. “It is a disadvantage, absolutely.”
Referring to the three courses that will remain two-year programs, she added, “It became clear for a few programs that the quality of instruction and certifications would be significantly impacted. That far outweighs the benefits of being able to enroll more students, in our minds.”
She and her staff also addressed changes to the admissions criteria that prompted Monroe students to write a joint statement last week protesting the change. Students are still required to submit their full academic record, Algebra I exam scores, and PSAT scores. But, under the new policy, they are no longer asked about their career goals, to explain why they would be good candidates for the program, or to include teacher recommendations.
The five parents and one former Monroe student who addressed the committee at the start of the meeting said those few questions provided students an opportunity to express their passions and goals, all things that grades and test scores won’t measure.
Nick Strigel, a Monroe graduate who’s now 20, said he found his career path in welding at Monroe and is now working for a construction company.
“I myself had an IEP (individualized education plan). According to new admissions standards, someone like me would not be accepted into Monroe because I didn’t have the highest grades or test scores,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m not smart or not hard working.”
School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said one of her kids would likely not be accepted into Monroe under the new criteria, and he’s the type of kid who most needs a hands-on learning experience.
“There’s a frustration that you’re taking away an opportunity for these kids who probably need it most,” she said.
Science Supervisor Odette Scovel said the staff is considering having students also submit a letter of interest and résumé next year. But it’s too late for the 2018-2019 school year; the deadline to apply is Thursday.
Academies of Loudoun Principal Tinell Priddy took a turn at the mic to speak to the complaints teachers had lodged about changes to their classroom space in the new building, including insufficient storage space and a shortage of power outlets. She said she recently had photos taken of each of the classrooms to be given to the teachers, and she is organizing a tour of the building in the coming months so they can weigh in.
“With any new building, there’s going to be challenges. If it’s not perfect we will work together to work on each issue,” she said, and asked everyone to come with a “problem-solving attitude.”
She did her part to end the meeting on a high note, when she pulled up a photo of the greenhouse that will be home to Monroe’s horticulture program.
“To our surprise, it’s huge,” she said. Referring to the program’s popular bi-annual plant sale, she said, “I cannot wait to see what the plant sale looks like in the future.”
School Board members Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) and Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin), who are not members of the ad hoc committee, attended the meeting but were not allowed to take part in the discussion because of a rule under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
In an interview with Loudoun Now, Turgeon said she spent more than 10 hours in meetings with Monroe teachers, and separately, with Ellis in the past week to work through the many concerns.
She said she appreciated that administrators have reversed a few of the changes, but she still has concerns. She has recommended that Ellis get teachers more involved in the transition and admissions process, and by extension, get community partners’ buy in.
“We absolutely should draw upon the institutional knowledge that these teachers have and these relationships with community partners that they’ve built because that is a huge concern,” she said. “I don’t lose sleep over many issues, but this one I have.”