It's a new year

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By Tom Wilmoth

    On Thursday, some 10,338 students are expected to fill the classrooms throughout Bedford County’s public schools. The 2013-2014 school year is officially underway.
    Meeting those students will be 99 new teachers to BCPS, including 55 first-year teachers.
    “I’m excited for a new school year,” stated School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch last week.
    And he expects those new teachers to bring new energy to the school system. “It brings new perspectives and new ideas on how to do things,” Dr. Schuch said.
    Those new ideas will be supplemented by a new way of learning for a group of middle school students participating in a digital device pilot program. “We’re going to do more of the blended learning,” he said.
    The program builds on programs implemented at the high schools the past couple of years, encouraging students  to “bring your own device.”
    He says the school system is no longer at a place where it needs to apologize for utilizing technology in the classroom. Now, Dr. Schuch said, technology is a “necessity” for student learning.
    “It’s such a big part of what students are going to need when they leave us—in just about any profession they pursue,” he said. “It’s nice to know we’re heading in that direction.”
    With the reversion of Bedford to town status, the school system is now unified under one banner, another plus for the students, according to Dr. Schuch. That means Bedford Elementary and Bedford Middle schools are now under the county’s direction. “We’re really excited to have this behind us,” Dr. Schuch said of the reversion process. And reversion also provides more funding for the school system, “allowing us to do more things for students,” he added.
    Students will also be evaluated under a new 10-point grading scale this year.
    And for school staff. The 3 percent pay raise, Dr. Schuch said, is a big morale boost.

STEM Academy
    Eight students from Bedford County Public Schools will also participate in the newly opened STEM Academy in Lynchburg.
    A ribbon cutting for the XLR8 STEM Academy was officially held Monday. The new school becomes the 16th STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) academy in Virginia.
    XLR8 will launch this coming academic year on the campus of Central Virginia Community College in the AREVA Technology Center, which will provide students with access to lab equipment and classroom space.  XLR8 has been a joint effort by the Region 2000 Technology Council, Future Focus Foundation and Workforce Investment Board; Central Virginia Community College; the school divisions of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Campbell and Lynchburg; and area business partners, including AMTI, AREVA, The Babcock and Wilcox Company, Centra, Delta Star and Wells Fargo.  XLR8 compliments current regional K-12 STEM activities and workforce development initiatives. The goal of this institution is to help close the gap between education and industry and further the economic vitality of this region.
    The STEM Academy curriculum will offer students an opportunity to learn in an innovative, engaging classroom where students will develop critical thinking skills through hands-on, project-based learning.  STEM Academy students will receive dual enrollment credits for all courses; allowing them the option to work toward a college degree.  Additionally, the STEM Academy will offer transfer possibilities through articulation agreements with local colleges and universities for students wishing to continue their education.  STEM Academy students will also be able to earn industry certifications, allowing for job readiness upon program completion.   

New calendar
    The 2013-2014 school calendar will also be new this year. School is starting a few days earlier than normal and will be completed before Memorial Day.
    Some school breaks have been shortened—students won’t get a full week off this year for Thanksgiving—but the first semester will end prior to Christmas break. That, according to Dr. Schuch, is important because students will be able to take exams before the break. Prior to this year, students would have their break for Christmas and then return to school having to take first-semester exams. “Quite frankly, that’s never made sense to me,” he said.
    “I think everyone is going to like it when we get to Memorial Day weekend and we’re done,” he said of the new school calendar.
    Ultimately, he said, the school calendar now reflects “what’s best for students’ learning.”
The future of learning
    Dr. Schuch said education has to adapt to the world of today. Businesses need fewer workers but they need the workers they hire to have a better skill set, he said. “The system we have was developed for the industrial age,” he said, “not the information age.”
    And, he said, that has to change to prepare students for the 21st century workforce. Learning needs to be designed to meet students where they are, allowing them to work at their own pace, Dr. Schuch said.
    The question educators, school officials and the school board has to answer is, “Are we willing to make the changes that are needed?” Dr. Schuch stated. “This is how the pilot program is going to help us.”
    Ultimately that could mean a change on the traditional method of how students are classified. Grade levels could, some day, be done away with under a more personalized learning system.

Safety and security
    In addition, new regulations are being handed down from the state on safety and security in the schools. Dr. Schuch hopes those regulations will be coupled with the opportunity to tap into grant funding to upgrade security equipment, especially in the older schools.
    Efforts earlier this year to have the county provide funding for more school resource officers were rebuffed by the county board of supervisors. But Dr. Schuch said the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia State Police are working to provide more of a presence at area elementary schools, which don’t have SRO’s there on a daily basis.
    “That’s been great,” he said.