RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — New lab schools are officially in the works after winning state dollars under a bipartisan initiative that has been a big priority for Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

Some schools are aiming to open as early as fall 2023, with more expected to follow in 2024, according to Virginia’s Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera. 

In a one-on-one interview on Thursday, Dec. 1, Guidera said the state has awarded three planning grants so far, with three others pending in the application pipeline. 

Lab schools are partnerships between institutions of higher education and local school divisions focused on crafting innovative learning models and meeting growing workforce needs. They’re subject to standards and laws that guide public education.

“Our system of one-size-fits-all education right now is not working for lots of kids and we know we need to build better connections between what children are learning in school and what the world outside of school needs,” Guidera said. “We’re really thrilled with the response we’re getting.”

According to grant award letters provided by the Virginia Department of Education, the University of Mary Washington received $200,000 to build a computer science–focused high school. Madison Biedermann, a spokesperson for Guidera, said UMW is partnering with Stafford, King George, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg City Public Schools. Guidera said she hopes this will ultimately be part of a larger network of schools modeled after Code RVA in Richmond. 

A partnership between Mountain Gateway Community College and a number of local school divisions, including Alleghany, Bath, Botetourt, Buena Vista and Rockbridge, was awarded $116,000. That program is focused on STEM and includes a collaboration with Amazon. 

“The partnership that they’re doing with Amazon is really exciting because they’re hoping that every single graduate of their program will also graduate with a credential in Amazon coding. So we’re seeing this connection of employers, of higher education, of school divisions coming together to really inspire students and make learning just spark and come alive for kids,” Guidera said. 

George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College are working together with Fairfax County Schools to provide accelerated work and dual enrollment programs for high school students, according to Guidera. The project received a planning grant of $199,000. 

Charles Pyle, a spokesperson for VDOE, said enrollment in lab schools would be based on a lottery system. He said they are not allowed to charge tuition for courses required for high school graduation, but costs may be associated with college credit. He said tuition may also be charged to students who don’t live within a partnering school division.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved $100 million in one-time funding for these innovation grants but there is no guarantee of continued state support in the future. Guidera said a key part of the application process is making sure these schools have a sustainable funding plan. 

“Every single applicant to date has partnered with the local school division and that’s also part of the way to make sure that there’s sustainability, because those lab schools are tapping into the funding that already exists in the school divisions as well,” Guidera said. “We’re also encouraging these applicants to work with local philanthropy, to work with employers, to work in partnership, to get donations.” 

Guidera said another program is further along in the planning process and will be eligible for money to help with start-up costs. She said James Madison University plans to ask the Board of Education for permission to open a lab school in fall 2023. She said the school would work with 9th and 10th graders to connect them with “multiple pathways of success,”  including entering a governor’s school, full-time dual enrollment or participating in an internship. 

Biedermann said GMU plans to launch its school in fall 2023 and the others are aiming for fall 2024.

As the effort picks up steam, some are questioning if the General Assembly’s actions earlier this year allow private universities to receive grant funding. The Youngkin administration believes they can. Some Democrats say that’s not the case and an advisory letter from two staff attorneys working for the Division of Legislative Services reiterates that view.

Guidera said there are no private institutions in the application pipeline at this point, but they are having conversations with several. VDOE would not provide details about the three pending applications on Thursday.

“Our understanding from the Attorney General is that we’re just continuing to move on on this and, if we need to make a change and clarify that language in the next General Assembly session, then we’ll do that but, at this point, it’s all systems go. I’m hoping that’s just clear and that we have private universities also applying,” Guidera said.