Academies of Loudoun: A Quantum Leap for STEM Education

Academies of Loudoun: A Quantum Leap for STEM Education

Call it 300,000 square feet of opportunities.

That is how Loudoun County Public School officials describe the Academies of Loudoun (AOL), which is under construction and scheduled to open for the 2018-19 school year.

The $122 million facility will take three existing advanced science, technology, engineering and math – collectively called STEM – programs under one roof. There will be more space for more students with more advanced technology in more subject areas.

“The Academies of Loudoun has been a vision here for many, many years,” said AOL Principal Tinell L. Priddy. “There is a multitude of opportunities for students to pursue an area of interest.”

AOL will be the district’s magnet center for science, technology, engineering and math – STEM.

Odette D. Scovel, science supervisor for LCPS, has been involved since the beginning of the 15-year evolution, planning and execution of Academies of Loudoun.

“The history of developing AOL is very long,” Scovel said. “It started out as a seed idea to replace Monroe Technology Center. The building is aging and we can’t satisfy the need in that building for what we want to present as opportunities to our kids.”

But AOL is much more than a technical school for high school students. In addition to about 26 programs currently housed at MTC in Leesburg, the new school – named Monroe Advanced Technical Academy — will incorporate two other programs started in the district since the initial planning of AOL began.

“About 13 years ago, we started the Academy of Science, which is our bench science program,” Scovel said. “That was a very small program that was built to encourage students who were interested in scientific investigation to be able to have an opportunity to do that. That has been housed at Dominion High School since we opened it, and the demand quickly outgrew the facility

“Along the way, we added an additional program – the Academy of Engineering and Technology at Tuscarora, which is the newest one. We actually launched that two years early, which was quite a challenge for Dr. Priddy. Quite a few of our school boards championed the idea of building a new facility to better house those programs.”

 1 + 1 + 1 > 3

School officials stress that AOL is not merely one-stop shopping for the three existing programs. Each will be strengthened and expanded over the first few years of operation as the programs evolve into the new facility.

“For grades 9-12, AOS currently has 268 spots available and they admit 68 freshmen a year,” Priddy said. “Next year we are admitting 120 freshmen, so we, over time, will double the size of AOS.

“AET is going to experience the largest growth of all because it is so new. We started out (in 2016-17) at 150 and this year we doubled and have 300. Next year, we will have 500 and that’s just adding in the 11th grade. As we continue to grow, AET will get closer to 1,000. Our initial target after the second year is going to be 700 and we will just have to see where we go from there.

“With MATA, moving the programs out of an older building that wasn’t designed as a CTE building is going to go a long way to increasing and reaching capacity. What I mean by that is that some of the rooms are small, some of them don’t fit the equipment well and don’t have what you want for those CTE programs.

“Here (at the Academies of Loudoun), we have actually have designed the facility around the instructional needs so we have more capacity to get students into those seats so MATA will also be around 1,000 students. It has a little over 600 now.”

But the district expects to see additional benefits from Academies of Loudoun, beyond more students and bigger and better facilities. They say interaction between students in the various pathways of the three programs that are currently separated will be synergistic for the overall learning process.

“There’s power behind that because one of the things we have found – probably in the last seven to eight years –  is that there is a need for those groups of students to interact with each and there is a want for these students to interact with each,” Scovel said. “It comes through the competition end and it comes through scientific and engineering research.

“All of that that helped to formulate the original mission and vision for the new building, which was to have a place where all of these kids could interact with each other.”

Scovel said that benefit fits with the district’s overall mission of preparing Loudoun County students with all the skills they need to succeed, however, they choose to define it.

“It’s not necessarily always content, but also how to decipher information and how to find the right information by asking the right questions and how to work as a team,” Scovel said. “Even though they’re in separate programs and their focus might be very different, there is always a need to interact with people in other disciplines.

“We always have a need for engineers. If you are a bench scientist you have a need for an engineer. If you’re an engineer, you need to the people in the trades to teach you how to do certain things when you are building things. If you are any of the above, you are going to need to rely on computer science people and on top of all of that, if you want to market something, you have to have the expertise to actually take something to market.

“They need to know how to do all of those things and how to build your working group so you can be as efficient as you can possibly be.”

In other words, the district is not just trying to provide a learning experience for students and make them life-long learners. They need to adequately equip them for the constantly evolving workplace environment.

“It’s really amazing and exciting when I think about what we are going to be able to do,” Scovel said. “I’m so excited because we’re not just preparing students for one, four-track college or university experience. We are focusing on valuable skills and life-lessons — from 21st century skills to industry certifications, to the team-building kinds of things. We know students need all of these things when they move into the university and then out of the university, or into a training program and then out into the working world.”

THE APPLICATION PROCESS

All three programs will remain application based – meaning students must apply and meet criteria based on their achievement and the number of spots available.

“AET and AOS are four-year programs, but students have the option to opt out after two years if they want to pursue something else,” Priddy said. “So, it’s a ninth-grade entry and students must apply in middle school. AET is a four-year program with some pathway choices, so students are able to select from (options like) computer science or entrepreneurship or engineering. AOS doesn’t have pathway choices. It’s just one, four-year program.

“MATA programs are either one-year or two-year. We deliberately structured each program to be slightly different in structure so it offers opportunities for students who are slightly different. We’re trying to reach a variety of an audience. We are trying to reach and accommodate differences in learning and interests.”

ALTERNATING SCHEDULE

Students from all 15 Loudoun County high schools are eligible to apply for enrollment in AOL, and when it reaches a capacity of about 2,500 students in the first few years, it will represent a quantum leap for the county from years past.

“For many years Loudoun County was sending students to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Tech, which is the Fairfax County STEM magnet program,” Priddy said.

While the implementation of AOS and AET have been positive steps, “as the district has continued to grow, enrollment in (STEM programs) has remained stable.”

All Loudoun County high school students operate on a rotating “A Day” and “B Day” schedule, so all AOL students will be dual-enrolled with their home high schools.  They will graduate from their home high schools, where they receive their instruction in non-STEM courses.

“Obviously, we are going to have a lot of kids with very, very high academic records and achievements at the Academies of Loudoun,” Scovel said. “Kids at AOS, AET and Monroe all get very, very deep into very rigorous curriculum across the board.

“With the dual-enrollment classes, our kids have a head start when they are out of our programs, whether they want to go the traditional college route, technical college or straight into a trade. “But (if they change their plans), it doesn’t shut them down from doing that.”

She said AOL will build on the success already being seen in the three separate programs. But the dual-enrollment plan keeps their long-term options open.

“We have a great track record with AOS with where our kids go and what their accomplishments are,” Scovel said. “We would love to say that all of them are going to be scientists and mathematicians, but that is not always the case. What we do a great job of is preparing those kids for whatever it is they are going to face and preparing them for highly challenging environments.”

Getting the school ready to admit students for the 2018-19 school year is on track, with staff hiring being one of the largest hurdles still looming for Priddy and her staff. She said they can’t really address that until they see final budget numbers sometime in the spring.

Overall, she said the process already has been fulfilling and the future looks bright for AOL and its students.

“We are very excited to be opening one school campus called the Academies of Loudoun with a multitude of different opportunities for students,” Priddy said.

Joseph Dill
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