This post by RCA President Colin Mills was originally published in Reston Patch.

School’s almost out!  This is an exciting and stressful time for a lot of school-age kids, including my daughter Leslie, who is finishing up the 6th grade at Sunrise Valley.  She’s looking forward to the end-of-year party and one last elementary-school band concert, but she’s also worrying about her SOLs and the strange new world of lockers and class changes that awaits her this fall at Langston Hughes.  As I try to help her relax and prepare at the same time, it can be a little nerve-wracking for me as well.

The end of the last school year prompted me to write about RCA’s history on education, and to suggest that RCA should take on the issue again.  This year, I’m happy to report, we’ve done just that.  I’d like to tell you about our Education Task Force, and share their bold vision that could revolutionize the way we teach our children, and make Reston an innovative leader in education.

The Education Task Force is led by RCA Board member and Reston 20/20 co-chair Tammi Petrine.  As anyone who has ever worked with Tammi knows, she’s passionate about the things she believes in, and she doesn’t do anything halfheartedly.  So it’s no surprise that she dove into this project with gusto, and it’s also no surprise that she’s charted an ambitious goal for the Task Force: to create an Academic Village that would keep at-risk students interested in school, and prepare them for the workforce.

By thinking big and aiming high, our Education Task Force is following the proud tradition of RCA’s old Education Committee.  They happily pursued big ideas, from hiring an educational consultant to develop an innovative education plan for Reston to pushing for South Lakes High to be built as a joint center along with other community facilities.  The Academic Village would be just as revolutionary as either of those ideas.

The idea behind the Academic Village is simple enough.  A big challenge faced by all school system is kids who aren’t that interested in school.  Whether because they struggle academically, or don’t respond to traditional teaching methods, or don’t enough  support at home, school is a struggle for too many kids.  But in our increasingly competitive job market, someone without a college degree (or even a high school diploma) faces severely limited future prospects.

That’s not just bad for those individuals; it’s bad for society.  A thriving community depends on a happy, healthy, and successful workforce.  We want our kids to be able to stay in Reston as they get older; in order to afford that, they need the education to land good jobs.  And a community that produces skilled and well-trained workers is a place where employers want to locate.

Reaching these at-risk students benefits both the kids and Reston as a whole.  So we started thinking about how we could restructure secondary education to keep those students interested at least through high school, and send them off either ready for college or at least with marketable skills that will allow them to compete in the job market.

This is the heart of the Academic Village concept: rather than focusing on traditional classroom education and rigid curricula, the Village would offer educational “pods” that would allow more tailoring for individual students’ needs, abilities, and interests.  The focus would be on hands-on education.  Reading and writing are very important, but a lot of kids learn by doing, and too often, there’s not enough opportunities for that in school.  The Academic Village would offer students the chance to develop practical learning skills and creative thinking.

The Village would have a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) component.  We all know about the strong demand for jobs in those fields, and we’ve heard about the looming shortage of qualified workers.  The Education Task Force believes that we’re on the cusp of a “Second Industrial Revolution,” that could revolutionize how we make and distribute things.  If that happens, we’re going to need creative and educated thinkers and doers to lead the way.

Why not seek innovative ways to spark interest in the areas where we know we’ll need it?  I would hope to invoke the spirit of a place like Nova Labs, where science and technology are cool and fun, and creativity is encouraged.  The Academic Village would show its students that not only does STEM education help you get a better job, but it can also be a lot of fun!

The Village would establish relationships with local colleges, including community colleges like NOVA.  A few months ago, I went to a talk held by NOVA President Bob Templin, who is actively seeking ways to identify and nurture non-traditional students.  The population of students the Academic Village would serve is exactly the group that Dr. Templin is trying to attract to NOVA, so that could be a great fit.

The Village would likely offer vocational education as well.  Encouraging kids to go to college is great, and certainly we’d help students at the Academic Village continue on to higher degrees.  But let’s face it: a four-year college degree isn’t for everybody.  And our society will always need plumbers, carpenters, HVAC specialists, and other manual-labor trades that can’t be outsourced.  We should make sure that even our students who don’t go on to college leave with the skills they need to get good, stable jobs.

All of this is still in the conceptual stages; we have a long way to go to make this vision a reality.  But Tammi and her Task Force are off to a great start.  They’ve made contact with our Hunter Mill School Board representative, Pat Hynes.  Pat was quite excited by the idea of the Academic Village, and she’s been very encouraging in helping us move forward.  We have also reached out to others who have experience with non-traditional education, seeking advice and ideas.

Does this vision excite you?  Are you interested in pioneering a new educational concept, reaching at-risk kids and helping them remain productive members of society, and finding ways to better prepare our children for the future?  If so, you should join the Educational Task Force.  Drop me a line and I’ll be glad to put you in touch with Tammi.

Once again, RCA is out front on education, and exploring creative ways to bring Reston forward into the future.