In front of a large audience of business and education leaders this morning, Superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools Eric Williams initially summed up the state of local education in just a couple of words: fast-growing and innovative.
Williams was one of the featured speakers at State of Innovation of Education Breakfast, part of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce’s PolicyMakers Series. The superintendent put a spotlight on some of the major milestones Loudoun’s public schools has hit in just the past few months that illustrate its growth and innovation, including opening the Academies of Loudoun and achieving universal full-day kindergarten, both of which have been goals school leaders have pursued for years.
“Hey, can I get a cheer?” he said of the latter, noting that just 11 percent of kindergartners had access to a full day when he was hired four years ago.
But Williams spent much of his presentation looking ahead to the school system’s next big goal: to equip students today to fill tomorrow’s workforce demands. He offered a glimpse inside the classrooms of three elementary schools— Meadowland, Moorefield Station and Round Hill—that have been named computer science immersion schools. That means that every student in every grade level—yes, even kindergarten—is taking part in computer coding activities for at least 30 minutes every school day. Students are learning how to create videos, websites, games and even direct robots.
Answering questions from Williams, fourth-grader Josslyn said the most difficult part has been “debugging” her programs. “We worked for three hours once to try to find a problem” within the code, she said. “But it’s fun…because we’re learning.”
Round Hill Elementary School teacher Christy Hollar told the audience that she’s seeing her students tackle, in some cases, college-level problem-solving through coding. Her fourth-graders have used coding to create videos and games to illustrate what they’ve learned about various animals as part of their science lessons or important Virginia figures as part of history lessons.
The Loudoun school system has also rolled out new computer science classes in the middle schools and introduced cybersecurity classes in the high schools that have already enrolled 1,200 students, Williams noted.
“This is not just about developing future coders,” he said. “This is about developing students’ ability to engage in computational problem-solving … and really it’s about confidently facing complex, open-ended projects.”
It was fitting that John Wood, CEO of Telos Corp. in Ashburn, introduced Williams. He said he was happy to see the school system harness computer science in almost every subject area. He noted that there are 40,000 unfilled cybersecuirity jobs in Virginia—and they pay, on average, $100,000 per year.
“There’s a huge need,” Wood said. “So the work that’s being done here in LCPS is very important and very near and dear to our hearts.”
The morning’s second featured speaker, Michelle Marks, vice president for Academic Innovation and New Ventures at George Mason University, put a spotlight on a problem that George Mason and Northern Virginia Community College are working to address. She pointed out that administrators at George Mason discovered that the average student who transfers from a community college to a four-year university loses 43 percent of their credits.
“That is unacceptable,” Marks said. “So we thought, since we’re such good partners with [Northern Virginia Community College], what is it that we can do about it?”
She also noted that George Mason enrolls the most transfer students of any university in Virginia, taking more than 3,200 each year, and that 80 percent of Virginia students who transfer from a community college intend to complete a four-year degree but only about 15 percent achieve it.
So teams from George Mason and NVCC created a new program called Advance with a goal of increasing the number of transfer students who earn a bachelor’s degree, while decreasing students’ time and cost to get there. Marks said the two schools are making improvements program by program to better align the curriculum at the community college and the university levels to ensure there are no wasted credits. They are also providing better advising and student support to transfer students.
“We can make a guarantee to students that they can graduate with 120 credits—no wasted credits, no wasted money, no wasted time,” she said.
That will only improve George Mason’s ranking as one of the colleges with the lowest student loan default rates in the country. Ninety-eight percent of George Mason students pay back their loans. “The reason they are able to pay them back is because they’re getting jobs—terrific jobs. … That’s why we’re here.”