By Laura Lee
A strong educational foundation ensures a vibrant economy and quality of life. Here in Lynchburg, the mission of Lynchburg City Schools says it all: “Every child, by name and by need, to graduation.” Serving nearly 8,000 students from pre-K to 12th grade, the school system was ranked the sixth most diverse school district in Virginia by Niche.com. Almost half of LCS teachers have a master’s or doctoral degree.
Read on for a roundup of special programs, from early childhood development to college and career prep, that not only advance Lynchburg students but the broader community, as well.
Beacon of Hope
LCS partners with Beacon of Hope to give students a fair chance at higher education and technical certification. Programs are aimed at removing four key barriers: awareness, access, affordability and academics.
“It’s been wildly successful,” says Laura Hamilton, founding director of Beacon of Hope. “In addition to college readiness and scholarships, we work with 12 area employers to give students on-site training. This helps our students and major employers who need a pipeline of skilled workers right after high school or while pursuing college or technical degrees.”
Future Centers nested in public schools provide help with financial aid, ACT and SAT prep, college applications and essays at no cost. Through the “Stay Close, Go Far” program, more than 750 students have received scholarships to local schools, including Central Virginia Community College, Liberty University, Randolph College, Centra College of Nursing, Sweet Briar College and the University of Lynchburg. Between 2014 and 2021, there was a 29% increase in the total students leaving high school with a viable, attainable plan for college, the military, certification programs, or workplace training.
The Empowerment Academy
This alternative school provides student support in an intimate environment. The program was created to curb the high school drop-out rate and give students a second chance at success. “We’ve had more than 90 graduates who wouldn’t have graduated otherwise,” says Kacey Jefferson, director of the Empowerment Academy. “The best part of my job is watching students come alive, get that glimmer back in their eye and blossom into confident individuals. We’ve had so many success stories.”
Students work to improve SOL scores, recover credits and even get hands-on experience at local businesses like Vector Space. “The whole premise is to make sure our young men and women feel part of their learning environment, understand their promise and overcome personal barriers,” says Jefferson.
Central Virginia Governor’s School
More than 150 gifted high school juniors and seniors from five school divisions attend CVGS.
“Located on the campus of Heritage High School, the Governor’s School was built in 2016 and designed specifically to accommodate our laboratories and equipment,” says Dr. Steve Smith, director of the Governor’s School. The labs contain learning opportunities, such as advanced robotics, a virtual reality dissection table and a scanning electron microscope. “CVGS offers math, science, research and technology courses in the mornings. Then our students return to their base high schools for English, history and electives in the afternoons.”
In addition to an advanced academic curriculum, students learn leadership, communication and job-readiness skills. Smith says that after college and graduate school, many alumni launch their careers in the Lynchburg area, working in health care, engineering, law, technology, finance and research. Others have gone on to global companies. Alumnus David Wells is the former chief financial officer of Netflix, and Kevin Scott is the chief technology officer of Microsoft.
Established in 1985, the Education Foundation supplements public revenue with grants, scholarships, school supplies and other programs. Through Classroom Innovative Grants, the Foundation awards more than $80,000 annually to selected teachers who demonstrate new and effective ways to increase learning and motivation. In addition, the Education Foundation has partnered with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library to provide free books each month to every Lynchburg child from birth to age five.
CTE & Dual Enrollment
More than half of LCS middle and high school students are enrolled in a Career & Technical Education (CTE) course to better prepare for post-secondary education and/or employment. Students can choose from 60 courses related to high-wage, high-skill and high-demand careers, such as architecture, construction, business management, education, engineering, finance, health sciences, hospitality, human services, IT, law, marketing, transportation and more. In 2021-2022, 1,022 students took CTE courses.
CTE’s job prep includes internships, job shadowing, externships, and apprenticeships — opportunities that provide “a stronger, more prepared pipeline for our students into the workforce,” says Jessie Hunt, Career & Technical Education counselor for LCS.
Dual Enrollment Opportunities give highly motivated students the opportunity to receive both high school and college credit. Qualified high school students may enroll in the University of Lynchburg or take classes from Central Virginia Community College while they are enrolled in their senior year of high school. In addition, through the Early College Program students may simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from CVCC.
Partners in Education
The LCS Partners in Education program connects area businesses with local schools to ensure students are successful in the real world. In the program’s 30-year history, more than 250 area businesses, organizations and institutions have offered critical insights to help prepare its future workforce.
“Each generation is raised in a different environment with new technologies and world issues,” says Hunt. “In order for students leaving high school to be as prepared as possible for the real world, the real world needs to be prepared for them as well. If we can stay connected with our local businesses by creating great partnerships, we can share with them how students are working and learning in the classroom and they can share with us what businesses are looking for in employees.”
LCS Virtual Academy
For students who thrive in an online learning environment, the LCS Virtual Academy (LVA) is an excellent option. K-12 students receive live instruction, asynchronous work and individualized feedback from trained teachers. In addition, students can participate in small groups, in-person lab experiences and extracurricular activities such as athletics. More than 200 students are currently enrolled in LVA.
Lynchburg City Schools provides a free and appropriate education for all students with disabilities, including intellectual, emotional and physical disabilities; hearing, speech or visual impairment; autism; learning disabilities and developmental delays.
In addition to serving the general population, Hutcherson Early Learning Center serves children ages 3 to 5 with special needs. Terry Lee, named 2022 HELC Teacher of the Year, works with a range of students with mild to severe needs, including those with autism, cerebral palsy and developmental delays. “I was getting a master’s in education and leadership, and while substitute teaching at Hutcherson, I fell in love with the culture, so I decided to pursue another degree in special education,” Lee says.
When it comes to receiving services, Lee says the earlier the better. “We’ve seen a lot of success stories. Many students are already caught up to their peers by the time they turn five.”
Lynchburg City Schools has partnered with the national organization Project SEARCH to give students with intellectual and physical disabilities real-world experience. During their last year in public school, students receive hands-on training at Centra Health, the area’s largest health system. Since the 2009-2010 academic year, more than 600 students have participated in Project SEARCH, gaining self confidence and job-readiness skills. The program has proven to be a win-win for both the hospital and the students.
LCS is dedicated to developing the whole child through a range of unique programming. For nearly 30 years, husband-and-wife team Albert and Lori Carter have headed up Dunbar Middle School for Innovation’s renowned theater program. Drama students put on multiple quality productions each year in the school’s impressive 950-seat auditorium. “We strive for excellence,” says Lori. “Productions include extraordinary choreography, special effects, beautiful costumes and a lot of community involvement. They’re mind-blowing.”
Even if a student is not zoned for Dunbar Middle School, they can apply for the theater program. The Carters say their students are fostering their creativity and gaining important life skills. “In these times of anxiety, theater is a safe space to get away from everything else,” says Albert Carter.
According to Public School Review, student athletes learn valuable skills such as team building, resiliency, discipline and motivation. LCS’s three middle schools and two high schools have a successful track record in sports. In 2023, Niche.com ranked Lynchburg City Schools the sixth best school district for athletes in Virginia as well as in the top 2% nationally. The district offers 20 varsity sports that compete in the Virginia High School League. Area schools boast recent state championships in cross country, football, track, golf, lacrosse and tennis.