Administrators at Franklin County High School are working to develop a program that will give students a head start on a career in the health sector.

The school division was awarded a $50,000 high school innovation planning grant by the state, which it will use to help put students on the path to a career after high school or college.

Jon Crutchfield, principal of Franklin County High School, said the idea is to allow students to load up on required courses in their early high school years, creating space in their schedules for internships, job shadowing and other career-based opportunities in their junior and senior years.

The next academic year will be spent planning the program, which would be implemented in 2020-21.

Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said in a news release that Virginia is working to transform the high school experience.

“These grants will help students receive relevant instruction and experiences that expose them to in-demand field and equip them to succeed after graduation,” he said in the release.

Assistant Superintendent Sue Rogers said school officials plan to develop a program that could be replicated with other career pathways. Computer information sciences would be up next, she said.

This fall, an advisory team that will include representatives from the school division and its partners will determine what courses are needed and map out how they will be offered. The team will need to bring a program of studies to the school board early next year, probably in January, for it to appear in the 2020-21 course catalog, Rogers said.

Crutchfield said the grant provides an opportunity to show the state that FCHS is a leader in innovation.

“We want to do some different things to provide for our students and our community,” he said.

The business community has indicated that internships, job shadowing and similar experiences are “vital” for students, Crutchfield said. But the structure of FCHS, “like every other traditional high school in America,” doesn’t leave much room for them.

Providing such opportunities will mean implementing nontraditional practices, Crutchfield said. That could mean summer school programs, online classes, blended courses or a zero period that would allow students to squeeze in another class before the regular school day begins.

It’s hard to say at this stage what the program will look like, Crutchfield said, but the goal is to “accelerate their core academics” so students have time for career exploration.

Rogers said project-based learning academies at the Gereau Center and the high school, known as New Tech and Eagle Tech, respectively, have demonstrated the benefits and efficacy of blended courses. The “smaller learning community” those academies create has been good for students, she said.

Those same principles could be applied to the health career pathway.

Administrators also hope the program will give students an opportunity to graduate high school with an associate degree.

“We realize that the rising cost of higher ed is affecting our parents in our community,” Crutchfield said.

The school division has already secured a number of partners, including Ferrum College, Virginia Western Community College and Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital.

Rogers said they also relied on workforce development data, which anticipated growth in the health sector.

“We were just looking at equipping our kids for what we know is a hot market,” Rogers said.

The demand for people in health careers, coupled with major employers in the region, like Carilion, made it an obvious choice for the high school’s first career pathway.

“That’s a field where there’s a lot of opportunities for employment for students after high school or after college,” Crutchfield said.

The high school already has courses in nursing, anatomy and medical terminology.

“But it’s not an organized, streamlined pathway,” Crutchfield said. “It’s just kind of cherry-picking the classes that they want to take.”

The principal said the definition of health, as it applies to the career pathway, is a broad one. The program won’t just appeal to aspiring nurses and doctors, but also to students who want to be veterinarians and occupational therapists.

Students who begin their freshman year at FCHS in 2020 likely will be the first to benefit from the program. Crutchfield said they hope to enroll 50 students in the first year.

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Casey Fabris covers Franklin County, Rocky Mount and Ferrum College.

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