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Va. Education Secretary visits PG's Rowanty Technical Center

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CARSON - As workforce development continues to be a key part of the state's initiatives to grow the Commonwealth's economy, last Tuesday afternoon proved to be a continued commitment to those goals as Virginia's education secretary toured Carson's Rowanty Technical Center with local school leaders, spending time with instructors and students while learning more about the trades the future members of Virginia's workforce were being taught within the school's walls.

State Education Secretary Atif Qarni was joined by Governor Ralph Northam's Chief Workforce Advisor Megan Healy as they were guided on a tour of Rowanty Technical Center by school principal Cheryl Simmers, in the midst of her third year as the technical center's leader, as she provided a classroom-by-classroom and shop-by-shop walkthrough of the school.

Qarni's visit to the technical center was one of his first to a technical and vocational trade center and it offered him and Healy a chance to spend time with instructors and students as they were "on the job," a mantra that carries through the whole school and serves to train students to treat coming to Rowanty like being at an actual job in order to prepare them for entering the workforce.

Along for Tuesday's tour were representatives from both Prince George and Dinwiddie, two of the three school divisions served by Rowanty, with Sussex being the third, as Dinwiddie Schools Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston, school board members Mary Benjamin and William Haney, and Prince George Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, who used their time with Qarni and Healy to discuss the role career and technical centers play in developing the young minds of their respective school divisions.

Dating back to the previous administrator of Governor Terry McAuliffe, vocational and technical education and its role in developing and evolving Virginia's workforce as the state faced economic challenges from factors such as sequestration, which dealt a blow to Virginia's overall economy as the federal government, particularly the military, and diversifying the type of industry and business coming to the state served to be key parts of his "New Virginia Economy" initiative at the time.

In his first few months in office, Northam is continuing McAuliffe's work, which included naming Healy his Chief Workforce Development Advisor, who brings knowledge of the career and technical program field to the job having worked with the Virginia Community College System while working with K-12, higher education institutions, and businesses to build pathways to good jobs.

Tuesday's tour was a boots-on-the-ground and hands-on experience for both Healy and Qarni to see the work being done by students first-hand as cosmetology students worked with hair rollers, automotive technology students performed maintenance on vehicles in the school's service bays and construction students showcased their masonry, welding and electrical skills in the school's various labs.

Schools like Rowanty are playing a key role in the increased number of industry credentials being earned by students across the Commonwealth. According to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Education's Office of Career and Technical Education Services, as of the 2013-2014 school year, over 103,000 credentials were earned by Virginia students that year, up from the 67,000 earned the previous year. In addition, the number of those receiving industry certification continues to rise, with over 69,000 students receiving those certifications, also up from the just under 40,000 in 2012-2013, allowing students to have a grasp of job-related skills and knowledge to stand out in the ever-competitive job market.

For Qarni, the visit to Rowanty served to prove the school is helping to train the men and women who will soon be part of the state's workforce in a variety of trades and industry fields.

"It is really good that Rowanty is providing that mechanism for a lot of young people to go through and get that training, get their credentials and then go to filling these high-paying jobs," he said. "That is a big priority for myself and the governor."

With Qarni's visit taking place when a majority of the shops and classrooms being active, he said he was pleased with the offerings Rowanty has and looks forward to seeing what else the school plans on offering in the future.

"Looking at the cosmetology, nursing, auto, criminal justice, I was very impressed with all of the offerings," he said.

For the school's principal, having students and staff spend time with local leaders and those from the state was important and Tuesday's visit by both the state education secretary and the leading member of the state's workforce development team will last beyond the scope of last week's hour-long visit.

"It is important to me for, not only, school board members and superintendents to be here, but for the state officials to be here too so our students understand the importance of what they are doing," Simmers said. "They understand that this work is not only important to school but it is also important to the state of Virginia. By having these people here, asking questions and showing an interest in what they are doing and what their future plans are, it just adds value to the education we are providing them here at Rowanty."

While students were focused on the tasks at hand during last Tuesday's visit, many were enthusiastic about answering questions about the projects they were working on as masonry students showed their latest creations, nursing students demonstrated proper bedside manner and auto body students and instructors gave a visual tour of a car they recently restored. Even as Simmers gave state representatives an overview of the school prior to the tour, the conference room they were seated in was renovated by Rowanty students, who installed lightning, wall outlets and performed a number of enhancements that left an impression on both Qarni and Healy, who remarked they'd love to have Governor Northam visit the school in the future.

For Simmers, having students work inside the school and see the finished product of their hard work on display is about giving them a sense of pride about the work they have done and their skills.

"One of the things we do is we develop relationships with the students," Simmers remarked. "We try to show them how you work at a job and in the workplace. Sitting at a desk with a book doesn't do that. Giving them a board to practice on is great, but, for example, being able to install a wall socket, building a shed that is going to be taken to a manned waste site in Sussex, it's about building a sense of ownership and these students take great pride in what they are doing and seeing how enthusiastic they were to share what they are working on is success to me."

According to Simmers, enrollment has increased at Rowanty by 20 percent in the last year and as a result of the positive growth, a lot of the programs at the school have been filled and now they are working to find money to add additional programs as interest in the center continues to grow.

For Qarni, comments from Simmers highlighting increasing demand for career and technical training shows the need to ensure these centers get the support they need to continue to be a key part of Virginia's workforce development plans.

"From our perspective, we will certainly be providing any support that we can to help bolster the programs," he said. "We really believe that technical centers are very important in helping get our workforce ready for the future."

"Right now, we are in the top ten when it comes to jobs and the economy, but we want Virginia to be number one," Qarni continued. "We have great centers like Rowanty doing good work and we want to keep supporting them so we can really be a great state for jobs."