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Education Experts Weigh West Virginia's Future, Urge STEAM

Amid a rapid increase in student homelessness and foster care after years of the opioid crisis, West Virginia's education leaders see a future in programming and coding, but also the artistic side of design and flow.

(TNS) — West Virginia students are at the edge of a crisis.

In 2010, there were around 4,000 K-12 students in West Virginia's school system in foster care and about 9,000 students designated as homeless. Over the last decade, those numbers have jumped drastically, to 7,000 in foster care and nearly 11,000 homeless students.

This year, the number of students enrolling in higher education dropped to some of the lowest numbers ever, with under 48 percent of students attending post-secondary education.

To address these issues and how West Virginia's education systems are combating these trends, a panel of four of the top figures in the state's education system participated in an "armchair discussion" as part of the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative's, six-hour "Focus Forward Symposium" Wednesday in Morgantown at the Waterfront Marriott.

Panelists Clayton Burch, state superintendent of schools; Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission; Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University; and Brad Smith, president of Marshall University discussed the future of education in the Mountain State.

Burch opened the discussion with the statistics about the rapid increase in student homelessness and foster care, which set up the rest of the panel to talk about how they look to combat these challenges.

"If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that our students are resilient, and our schools are resilient," Burch said. "We have to set high expectations no matter what these stats say and no matter how hard it might seem."

The issue is deeper that just students in need. As analyzed by the panel's moderator, Illah Nourbakhsh, students in these situations are more worried about where their next meal will come from than rather than the answers to their chemistry test.

These worries translate to the realm of higher education. Tucker picked up after Burch and dropped the statistics that college enrollment is declining rapidly. While this is in part due to rising tuition costs, the students Tucker expressed the most worry over were not what she called "rising stars," but the struggling students that may not get the opportunity in higher ed.

This shift in the way students prioritize college has stumped many in the field. The traditional approach to getting kids into college was to go through the parents. But in recent years, a problem has arisen with this model.

"When I go around the state and talk to students, I'm seeing very few parents," Tucker said. "What I am seeing are a lot of aunts and uncles and grandparents and I'm seeing a lot of really difficult family dynamics and a lot of influence from the opioid crisis."

Gee and Smith exchanged playful banter on the stage, but the two presidents exemplified the strong bond between West Virginia's two largest higher education institutions.

They spoke at length about the challenges in the workforce and how the workforce is changing, but eventually brought the conversation back to the future of West Virginia and its education system.

"I think we have to go back to look forward. I think that in all the fast forward movement, we've forgotten certain value-centric approaches," Gee said. "Civic education, for example, I think we need to rethink that in our universities and certainly in our public schools."

Smith spent a lot of time discussing the importance of the addition of the "A" into the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics STEM acronym, by adding "art."

As STEAM programs gain traction in West Virginia, he believes the state is producing a workforce that is in high demand in the world of tech.

Smith's beginnings were in Silicon Valley in the tech world as CEO of Intuit, and he sees the industry taking a huge turn away from the hard sciences of programming and coding and into the artistic side of design and flow.

"We need the 'A' in STEAM for a whole host of reasons, but also for very pragmatic reasons — employers need it," Smith said. "If we have students whose main focus is, 'How am I going to feed my family?' Well, these are the more in-demand jobs we need to prepare them for."

The final point on which the panel landed was that West Virginia is in a unique position to not only experiment but innovate and lead the country in the field of education.

With programs like Ascend West Virginia that aims to attract remote workers and young families seeking a different kind of environment from the vertical cities, the Mountain State is poised to change in a big way over the next decade.

"We don't need to say we're going to catch up, we need to say we're going to lead," Gee said.

"Rural has become the new urban," Smith said. "Coming out of COVID ... [families] want to have the opportunity to come and create a dream in a place where they can live. That's all happening in West Virginia as we speak."

©2022 the Times West Virginian (Fairmont, W. Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.