Joe Buchanan (from left), former provost of Tidewater Community College, and Virginia Beach Schools’ Pat Konopnicki and Michael Taylor say that the ATC’s collaborative approach gives students an edge in the workplace.

Apr 11 2007

A+ Effort

Virginia Beach's novel project joins public schools, a community college and the city to share technology.

Creating a 21st-Century Academic Village
Virginia Beach’s novel project joins public schools, a community college and the city to share technology.

State-of-the-art technology, K–16 education and collaboration don’t often travel together. But this unlikely trio is the foundation for success at Virginia Beach’s Advanced Technology Center.

The $22.5 million ATC is a collaborative effort among Virginia Beach Public Schools, Tidewater Community College and the city of Virginia Beach, Va. It epitomizes a high-tech career and technical education.

The ATC was born of thrift. In the mid-1990s, Virginia Beach schools charged Director of Technical and Career Education Patrick Konopnicki with creating a new technology center. “But after building a new high school the district didn’t have the appetite, or budget, for a second major building project,” acknowledges Konopnicki. Economic reality forced the district to consider alternatives.

The district realized Tidewater Community College also needed to update its technical infrastructure. At the same time, the city had adopted an aggressive economic development strategic plan.

The trio began meeting to brainstorm and discuss common needs and goals. In 1998, the group secured $10 million in state funds and the city provided $12.5 million to get the project off the ground.

Recipe for Success

The Advanced Technology Center gets an assist with its technology from industry.

The ATC is a member of the Microsoft Academic Alliance, which allows information technology students to work with the latest Microsoft software, such as Vista, .NET Framework and SQL Server. In addition, the center is an official Cisco Academy site. Last year, Cisco Systems loaned ATC students $175,000 in equipment to complete senior projects.

Students are equipped with commercial-grade technologies. Students use Adobe Creative Suite software, including Photoshop and Illustrator to master graphic design techniques.

The group engaged an architect and began meeting weekly to hammer out the finer details of the arrangement. A memorandum of understanding established guidelines for the operating committee and divvied up space among the city and schools. The schools used the city’s strategic plan as a road map and started to align programs to the plan in three tech clusters: information technology, telecommunications and manufacturing/engineering.

Cluster Coursework

Leading the commonwealth in certifications requires robust coursework. Here’s how the Virginia Beach ATC delivers.

IT Technology Cluster

  • A+ computer repair
  • Digital design
  • Computer network administration
  • Cisco Academy
  • Web design
  • Microsoft Windows Visual basic programming
  • Oracle Academy

Children Engaged

The center houses six server rooms, 1,150 desktop computers and 2,500 network connections. It can host a teleconference for eight sites, and a 200-seat theater with a 30-foot screen is a phenomenal forum for live Webcasts and studio presentations. But getting all these pieces to mesh for three distinct groups took work.

IT performance and security are huge challenges across the three distinct demographics: city, college and high school users, says Ray Tranchant, the ATC’s operations director.

The initial plan called for the three entities to use the same Cisco Systems switches, with the Tidewater Community College (TCC) network as the backbone. Each group planned to have firewalled servers. The city, however, realized the arrangement was too risky to the security integ­rity of its network, so it wasn’t willing to connect to the network. The city decided to install a separate wireless network for its spaces. When the ATC opened in fall 2002, the school district and college shared switches, but in 2005 the school district installed its own fiber network.

Joint-use spaces such as the Tech Theater pose another challenge. The theater is equipped with 150 TCC connections that both high school and college users can access. High school kids, however, are screened for obvious negative and violent Web sites while the college allows more freedom for research purposes. The ATC installed a mechanical switch that releases all Internet Protocol addresses in the theater and switches from network to network. The school can screen for its stringent security profiles, while the college can switch back for its use.

The latest challenge comes from the college plan to install a wireless network that is not accessible to the high school kids.

A current plan is under negotiation with both agencies, but a two-pronged approach is possible. The network will be password-protected for enrolled college students only. Other school districts with joint-use experience (where high schools exist on college campuses) have required the high school parents to sign a waiver in the case of inadvertent access to a college network Internet connection. These ideas are currently under negotiation with both TCC and Virginia Beach Schools CIOs.

The IT plan is a work in progress, says Tranchant. “As we develop solutions we can use them as prototypes for future joint projects.”

Career Focused

ATC provides a foundation for teaching integration that delivers unparalleled career education opportunities to 400 high school students who attend classes at the center and earn college credits while completing their high school diplomas. The ability to earn certificates in areas such as network administration and Web design is a significant advantage for students.

During a 450-hour course, students receive individual attention and have time to work with equipment, which isn’t possible in a typical 70-hour certification training course. What’s more, kids can enter Tidewater or other postsecondary schools with advanced standing.

Students are rising to the challenge. In 2006, Virginia Beach high schoolers led the state in industry certifications, earning 224 certificates. And ATC students lead the district in scores on the Virginia Workplace Readiness Skills Assessment.

The benefits of the collaboration transcend academics. “This gives our students a head start in the workplace,” says Assistant Principal Michael Taylor. Many graduates proceed to college and enter the postsecondary world with more skills than their peers, and they are able to secure higher-paying jobs.

“This project illustrates the economic power of collaboration,” says Konopnicki. By working together the group devised a model solution that exceeds the capabilities of all partners and meets everyone’s needs.


Inside Advice

Virginia Beach’s Advanced Technology Center represents a decadelong process and provides a model for K–16 workplace readiness and college-prep programs across the country. Pedagogical architects offer advice for their colleagues.

  • It’s important to develop operating agreements as early as you can, preferably prior to designing the building, says Joe Buchanan, former provost of Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach Campus. A clear agreement steers the entire process from funding to construction and equipment.
  • Knock on economic development’s door, says Patrick Konopnicki. Agencies have their fingers on the pulse of workforce needs and can assist with intellectual capital. The Virginia Beach Public Schools project relies on a member of the Virginia Beach Economic Development committee to chair its K–12 career and technical programs advisory council.
  • Take time to develop the curriculum. “A canned program designed for adults won’t be tailored to the needs and motivation levels of high school students,” states Assistant Principal Michael Taylor.