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New program pairs high school students with graduate researchers at VCU

“It’s an opportunity for the high school students to collaborate with master’s and doctoral students and it gives them an idea of what higher education is all about.”

RVAHub Staff

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By James Irwin

Kaya Smith wants to attend medical school, so when an opportunity arose for the Henrico High School student to spend two weeks this summer working in a laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, she did not hesitate to take it.

“My counselor told me about it and I thought it would be a nice opportunity,” said Smith, a rising senior and aspiring surgeon. “My school focuses a lot on research, especially with the [International Baccalaureate] program. In my high school biology class, we worked with lipids and bacteria growth. I felt this research opportunity would be nice for me to get a broader experience working in a lab.”

Smith is conducting research related to heart disease alongside Anna Kovilakath, a third-year Ph.D. student in the VCU School of Medicine. They were paired through a new program called RAM Opportunity that matches high school students in Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico public schools with graduate researchers at VCU. The program, piloted last year through the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute, is run by VCU’s Graduate School, and provides research and mentoring opportunities for participants, said Melissa Tyler, assistant dean of the Graduate School.

“It’s an opportunity for the high school students to collaborate with master’s and doctoral students and it gives them an idea of what higher education is all about,” Tyler said. “And it’s an opportunity — if they have a special interest — to work hands on and get experience that can help them learn more about where they want to take their academic careers.”

Smith and Kovilakath are two of four participants this summer. Portia Newman, a doctoral student in the School of Education, is the RAM Opportunity program coordinator. Newman said the length of the program — 40 hours over two weeks from July 15-26 — provides a way for high school students to experience a research project already underway.

“It feels like a test run, to help them explore what they can do with their interests,” Newman said. “And this is work the graduate students are already doing. It’s a way for the students to see what’s happening in real time.”

Kaya Smith and Anna Kovilakath standing in the student lounge on the MCV Campus.

Kovilakath and Smith are working with sphingolipids (a type of lipid). They are growing heart cells and measuring the effect of either removing or adding a specific sphingolipid called SPTLC-3, Kovilakath said.

“We’re going to analyze the results and see how that affects the heart cells,” she said. “Does getting rid of that [sphingolipid] improve the heart cells, or does increasing it improve it?”

The work has ties to heart health, specifically to myocardial ischemia, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is reduced, preventing it from receiving enough oxygen.

Smith said she was nervous at first, but has quickly grown comfortable in the lab.

“It’s nice to do some research and go further in depth,” Smith said. “And hopefully that helps me as I go to college and start taking lab classes — and beyond that as I continue to pursue my dream of becoming a surgeon.”

Abhay Dharanikota, a rising junior at Godwin High School, is also participating in RAM Opportunity this summer. Dharanikota is working with Janay Little, a third-year Ph.D. student in the School of Medicine. They are working with DNA to clone bacteria as part of Little’s research into issues related to E. coli.

“It’s hands-on, so [in the future] I can come back to the lab and know what I’m doing — how different machines work and know procedures and techniques,” said Dharanikota, an aspiring orthopedist.

Abhay Dharanikota, left, and Janay Little, in the lab at VCU.

VCU students and high school students interested in RAM Opportunity can contact the Graduate School at [email protected]. Newman said the Graduate School will likely begin matching applicants for summer 2020 in late fall of this year. Though the program is starting small, Newman and Tyler said it has potential to grow quickly given VCU’s breadth of academic programs and the size of the Richmond region’s high school systems. With that growth, Tyler said, would come a need and an opportunity for sponsorship — both within VCU and outside the university.

“That’s going to be a key to growing this,” Tyler said.

Little, Dharanikota, Smith and Kovilakath will present on their work July 25 at a luncheon celebrating the conclusion of the program. For Little, who one day hopes to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or as a medical science liaison, RAM Opportunity has been a way to continue her work and share knowledge with others.

“I’ve always liked interacting with people who want to learn something new,” she said. “I feel like the whole point of learning is to teach somebody else at some point.”

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Henrico Schools release five possible options under consideration for fall return

Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year. Here’s what they could look like.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County Public Schools will provide all students with customizable learning pathways for the summer and is considering five options for a return to school for the 2020-21 school year.

In an attempt to buttress summer learning and mitigate the effects of instructional time lost to the closure for coronavirus, all of the school division’s students will have access to prescribed learning pathways for the summer months. In some cases, students’ plans will be optional, and in others, will be required. The avenues will include both asynchronous learning (online learning that happens on students’ schedules) and synchronous learning (online education that happens in real-time, delivered by a teacher at a specific time).

The five options for the 2020-21 school year include a full return to school campuses for all students, an all-online option, and three options that would combine the two. All options that involve returning to school facilities would include new, possibly unprecedented, safety protocols for successfully reopening public schools.

“This summer and fall will be about flexibility, creativity, and above all, safety,” said Amy Cashwell, HCPS superintendent. “We’re going to keep working hard to find innovative ways to support all our students as they continue learning this summer, and to prepare for a safe return to school in the fall, no matter what that may look like.”

Summer student pathways

Summer learning pathways are part of HCPS’ “Henrico Edflix” learning plan and will enable all students to build skills directly related to the grade-level content they will encounter during the 2020-21 school year. Some of the pathways are designed for students who may have gaps in learning, while others are designed for review, enrichment and acceleration. There are also several exceptional education options under consideration for students with disabilities. The plan will include students who, in other years, might have taken part in HCPS’ Summer Academy, accelerated learning or extended-school-year programs. For details about the pathways, go to HCPS’ On-Demand Learning webpage athttps://henricoschools.us/covid19/ondemandlearning/.

Fall options for 2020-21 school year

Henrico County Public Schools is considering five possible formats for 2020-21 school attendance, depending on factors related to the pandemic. New safety measures would be adopted for on-campus options, and under all options, the pace of learning would be adjusted to include content students may have missed in the spring. The five options under consideration are:

  • Option A: On-campus learning. All students would be back on campus, with new, possibly unprecedented, safety measures in place.
  • Option B: Remote learning that is structured and enhanced. All students would participate in required daily remote learning that includes graded schoolwork. While HCPS’ March closure necessitated emergency distance-learning measures, this option would more closely resemble the traditional expectations of a typical school day.
  • Option C: Interrupted on-campus learning. All students would be back on campus for several weeks or months at a time, which could be interrupted by periods of structured remote learning in response to health concerns that may arise.
  • Option D: Hybrid learning. One portion of the student body would attend classes on campus for a period of time, while another portion would learn remotely. The two groups might switch after a number of months, or alternate days on campus to build a blended learning environment. Having fewer students on campus would make it easier to implement distancing guidelines.
  • Option E: Parallel learning. Part of the student body would attend all classes on campus while another group would learn remotely for the entire school year because of choice or necessity. This option would not require students to alternate days, unless a student needed to shift from one track to the other.

Each of the five options would require extensive coordination and planning by HCPS staff members. At this time a final plan has not been determined. The school division will make additional announcements as plans continue to be developed in accordance with health and safety guidelines.

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College admissions deans from multiple schools to offer Virtual College Night May 27th

Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

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Virginia high school students who want to learn more about the college admission process and financial aid can attend Virtual College Night for Virginia at 6 p.m. on May 27.

The virtual opportunity is the brainchild of admission deans from the University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Washington and Lee University, and William & Mary. The deans were batting around ideas on how to reach high school students during this time of social distancing. They recognized that many topics are important to potential college students. Rather than provide all of the information individually, they decided to join forces to create the Virtual College Night.

The pilot evening, which will be held via Zoom, will focus on central and south central Virginia. Students who have expressed interest in the four institutions will receive an invitation via email.

If the evening is successful, Virtual College Nights will be scheduled in other regions.

Admission deans will provide information on college search, application review and selection, financial aid, and trends in higher education.

The deans include:

  • Sally Stone Richmond, Washington and Lee University
  • Greg Roberts, University of Virginia
  • Gil Villanueva, University of Richmond
  • Tim Wolfe, William & Mary

They will cover the topics in about 40 minutes followed by a 20 minute Q&A.

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Henrico County Public Schools considering starting school before Labor Day in 2021

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. The proposal would apply to the 2021-2022 school year and going forward.

RVAHub Staff

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In early March, Henrico County Public Schools introduced the idea of a pre-Labor Day start to the 2021-22 school year. That was before the educational landscape shifted with HCPS’ closure to combat the coronavirus pandemic. At its May 14 work session, the Henrico School Board decided to revisit the issue and consider two calendar options for 2021-22 — one with a pre-Labor Day start and another with a more traditional post-Labor Day start.

Members of the public are invited to share their thoughts on the two options by taking a survey, open until June 3 at 8 a.m. The survey is available by going to HCPS’ website, henricoschools.us, and looking under “Hot Topics,” or by going to henricoschools.us/2021-22-calendar-options/.

The two calendar options under consideration for 2021-22 are:

  • Calendar Option A (pre-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Monday, Aug. 23, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 3, 2022.
  • Calendar Option B (traditional post-Labor Day start.) School would begin on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. School would end on Friday, June 17, 2022.

At the work session, conducted in a virtual format, the Board also considered a third option, where students would attend school year-round, with intermittent breaks. After discussing the “extended school year” idea, the Board decided to eliminate that option, citing a desire for more research and collaboration with other school divisions in central Virginia.

While the first and last days of school differ, as well as student and staff holidays, all options would include the same number of instructional days.

Possible advantages of a pre-Labor Day start (Option A) include:

  • Provides two additional weeks of instruction before International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement testing, resulting in less time between the completion of testing and the end of the school year.
  • The academic calendar would more closely align with the start of fall extracurricular activities, as well as college and university schedules.
  • Provides at least a four-day break for Labor Day weekend.

Possible advantages of a post-Labor Day start (Option B) include:

  • Maintains traditional HCPS school calendar.
  • Keeps intact the construction schedule for the new J.R. Tucker and Highland Springs high schools and the expansion of Holladay Elementary School (a pre-Labor Day schedule would move up the construction deadline).
  • Maintains the length of the 2021 summer break for students and HCPS staff members (a pre-Labor Day start would require a one-time reduction of summer break).

There are no significant budgetary differences between the two options.

The 2020-21 school year is already scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day, which is Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020.

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