Qarni talks workforce development with education, business leaders: New Virginia secretary of education hears success stories, areas of need for greater focus


Photo above: Dr. Brian Ratliff speaks during the roundtable discussion at Food City corporate headquarters.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni (right) with Travis Staton
Photos courtesy United Way of Southwest Virginia

By Scott Robertson

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni, a former civics teacher from Prince William County, made his first foray into Southwest Virginia in March, meeting with educators and business leaders. “We want to focus on literacy in general, but on financial literacy – a couple of years ago we made it mandatory for high schoolers to take personal finance – and digital literacy, because we live in a digital age,” Qarnit said in a breakfast meeting at Food City corporate headquarters in Abingdon. “We don’t want to reinvent anything. We want to see what’s already happening and focus on what’s being done well.”

During the meeting, and later in a luncheon sandwiched around a tour of a child development center in Marion and a high school in Chilhowie, Qarni heard about successes including the IGNITE program, which appears likely to earn the first GO Virginia grant for Region 1, as well as areas where greater focus would be helpful.

Travis Staton, CEO of the United Way of Southwest Virginia, which hosted the secretary and coordinated the event, began by explaining the chief goals and action steps taken to date to bridge the worlds of education and work in the region. “Through collaborations with multiple sectors and jurisdictions, we are leading a cradle to career continuum to make sure we improve the workforce of tomorrow. Our most valuable asset is right in front of us – our youth. Every day we are forming new partnerships with school systems, employers, governmental entities to make sure we are holistically looking at those needs and working collaboratively to break down those silos and work together to improve outcomes in Southwest Virginia.”

Dr. Brian Ratliff, Washington County Schools superintendent then presented the Profile of a Virginia Graduate. “This idea of a profile of a Virginia graduate was born of local conversations about whether students were adequately prepared and about whether the skillsets have been developed, whether or not we have fostered college and career readiness, particularly career readiness,” Ratliff said.

“The profile of a Virginia graduate describes the knowledge, skills, experiences and attributes that students must obtain to be successful in college or the workplace and to be life-ready in an economy and a world characterized by rapid change. A Virginia graduate must achieve and apply appropriate academic and technical knowledge. They must demonstrate productive workplace skills, qualities and behaviors. They must build connections and value interactions with others as responsible and responsive citizens.

“Every person at this table has a connection with that,” Ratliff concluded. “Every student in Washington County must be prepared to do that.”

Dr. Keith Perrigan, Bristol Public Schools superintendent then promised business leaders the schools would do a better job of preparing students for whatever career best suits them. “We in K-12 have to stop telling every kid that college is a must,” Perrigan said. “We have to start telling them, ‘There is something out there for you.’ We have to direct them into community college where that’s appropriate and directly into the workforce when that’s appropriate.

“We have to find out what our employers need,” Perrigan continued. “We have provided college visit trips. We have even chartered busses to go on a circuit of all the colleges we have in Virginia, but we have not put them on busses and taken them to our local community businesses and industry. We need to do that.”

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