A new generation of schools is cropping up across the country—small, technology-driven magnet schools that focus on providing students with the 21st century skills they need to succeed in the digital world.

The Blue Ridge Technical Academy is one of the first such charter schools in Virginia, and it has all the characteristics that define this new breed of educational institution.

The classes are small, with fewer than 10 students in most. Teachers work individually with their pupils. There are no bells, no crowded halls, and no public intercom system. There are few discipline problems, because all of the students want to be there. Absences are rare, and there are no security guards.

At Blue Ridge Academy, near Roanoke, each student has a laptop computer provided by the school. Students can take the laptops home at night and on weekends.

While at school, the students have access to study carrels and a lounge. The desks, chairs, and other furnishings are new, and most students agree the atmosphere is relaxed.

“It’s definitely different,” said Alex Corcoran, a freshman at Patrick Henry High School, where he attends classes in the morning before going to the academy in the afternoon.

“We’re pretty nontraditional in everything from the instructional method to the building and environment,” said Principal Terri Webber.

Located in the Roanoke Higher Education Center, Blue Ridge combines academics, technology, and workplace training, including core job skills and career counseling for students in grades 10 to 12. The school offers training in health and medical science technology, fiber optics, manufacturing technology, eCommerce, and computer information technology.

Instruction is given with a hands-on approach. The emphasis is on problem-solving that helps students focus on practical business applications of academic concepts. Technology is the cornerstone of the program.

The school—which has been open for three months—has 25 students, who come from Patrick Henry and William Fleming high schools. Another dozen students are scheduled to enroll in the second semester. School officials project an enrollment of 75 to 100 by next fall and 200 by the fall of 2003.

Corcoran, a former state champion chess player, said he has found a school he loves. “I like the environment because the Higher Education Center is clean and well-kept. The teachers know what they’re teaching. Everyone here is focused because they want to get the most out of it.”

At Patrick Henry, Corcoran takes English, history, science, and French. At Blue Ridge, he studies geometry, computer science, and business careers. He is a freshman but was admitted to the technical school, which usually doesn’t accept students until they are sophomores, because he passed algebra and earned three high school credits while he was in middle school.

Don Knezek, director of the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Center for Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology, said schools like Blue Ridge Academy are becoming more common.

“My sense it that the reason we see a proliferation of these [schools] is that there are some natural conditions that exist that make them make sense,” he said.

One reason is there’s a huge demand for skilled personnel in the information technology (IT) industry, even during an economic downturn, Knezek said. These schools also cater to the type of student who can sometimes slip through the cracks in a more traditional educational setting.

Erica Wilkins, a William Fleming sophomore, thinks the technical school will help prepare her for a good job. “I came mainly because I thought it would be good job training. I’m happy I decided to come.”

For Cedric Petty, the small classes are one of Blue Ridge’s top attractions. “It is not as much distraction as having 25 students in a class,” said Petty, a sophomore at Patrick Henry. “I think this will give me more job opportunities.”

The students do not have to pay tuition because the charter school is financed with federal, state, and local funds. The Roanoke School Board created the school and helps oversee it. School officials are allowed flexibility in running the school because charter schools are free of some state regulations.

Roanoke also provides bus transportation from Patrick Henry and William Fleming to academy students. The school has four teachers, a guidance counselor, principal, and director, but officials say it will add more staff as enrollment increases.

It is described as an employer-linked school because the staff is working closely with business and industry leaders in designing the curriculum. Business partnerships are a major component in the program, which will include internships, mentoring, job shadowing, guest lectures, career seminars, and orientation sessions.

“Our intention is not only to expose students to technology fundamentals, but to equip them with the operational technical skills that will make them highly competitive for emerging technology jobs in western Virginia,” said Al Moyer, the academy’s director. All students completing the program will receive a national, state, or local certification of technical qualifications.

The academy offers programs both for students who wish to earn a high school diploma and for those seeking a General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Students in the GED program attend the academy for the full school day, while those seeking a high school diploma spend a half-day at the academy and the other half at their home high school.

The school operates with a philosophy that character, self-discipline, and hard work are essential components of educational and workplace success. All students must have parental permission to enroll and are required to sign a personal contract covering appropriate dress and behavior, consistent attendance, and adherence to principles of integrity.

The academy is one of eight schools in the United States that recently received a $90,000 grant from Johnson & Johnson, an international manufacturer of health care products, to boost the school’s curriculum in health and medical-related careers. The grant will enable the charter school to build a science learning lab and develop a curriculum to train students for a broad range of occupations in the health industry, Webber said.

Blue Ridge’s environment has already changed some students’ attitudes, Webber said.

“We have some students who had never thought about college, but in this setting, being in the same building where college students have classes, some are beginning to feel differently about themselves,” she said.

According to Knezek, the benefit of technology-focused magnet schools is that students “can get their hands on real work.”

“This [phenomenon] is due to a convergence of factors. Industry, schools, and philanthropies are all willing to give funds to support these schools, and there has been some documented success with these programs,” he said.

“Most of these programs … are set up in a way that allows students to go on to higher education or to work. Once they experience success, they are free to choose their avenues of pursuit,” Knezek said. “It is an exciting endeavor, and it serves a national work force need.”

Links:

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Blue Ridge Technical Academy
http://roanoke.k12.va.us/schools/brta/index.html