Regional high school programs serving students in Central Virginia saw a drop in applications this year, and officials largely blame the pandemic.
With fewer students in school buildings and the challenges school divisions faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders with the Central Virginia Governor’s School for Science and Technology, Lynchburg Regional Governor’s STEM Academy and the early college program at Central Virginia Community College said getting the word out about their programs was more difficult during the last school year.
Steve Smith, director of the CVGS, said the program saw its lowest number of applicants since at least 2016.
“We were very surprised,” Smith said. “It’s got to be pandemic-related.”
CVGS is a regional program that serves junior and senior students from the 11 high schools in Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell. Students at the governor’s school attend the school — located beside Heritage High School on Wards Ferry Road in Lynchburg — for three periods per day before returning to their base schools for the rest of their classes.
For the 2019-20 school year, 188 students across the five school divisions applied for just 70 seats in the program’s junior class. In 2020-21, that number dropped slightly with 177 applicants vying for approximately the same number of seats in the junior class.
With applications due in February, Smith said that drop wasn’t too concerning and could likely be attributed to the confusion around that time about how the COVID-19 pandemic would affect education.
For the 2021-22 school year, however, the total number of applications dropped nearly 27% to 130.
According to the school’s application and selection report, applications for Lynchburg City Schools’ more than 20 junior slots dropped 31.9% from 47 for the 2020-21 school year to 32 for the 2021-22 school year.
Bedford County Public Schools, Campbell County Public Schools and Appomattox County Public Schools also each saw a decrease in applications for the current school year — roughly 33%, 29.8% and 38.8%, respectively.
Amherst County Public Schools was the only division that feeds the governor’s school to see a slight increase in applications from 17 for the 2020-21 school year to 22 for the 2021-22 school year — an increase of about 29%.
In a typical school year, Smith said, he and other CVGS teachers make visits to all 11 high schools that feed the program and hold information sessions with the sophomore class to answer questions about the program and encourage eligible students to apply. Usually, middle schoolers from the five school divisions visit the school to tour and learn about the program, too.
During the past two school years, however, those middle school visits and information sessions were interrupted by the pandemic. Smith said he thinks that lack of information likely contributed to the drop in applications.
“I feel that our program can be intimidating to students who don’t know it well,” Smith said.
CVGS began fall classes Aug. 3 with its highest enrollment ever: 144 students from the five divisions. Smith said because of building space, lab space, staff and scheduling, the school’s capacity is 150 students.
Amherst County Public Schools has eight juniors and eight seniors in the program; Appomattox County Public Schools has four juniors and four seniors enrolled; 22 juniors and 22 seniors are enrolled from Bedford County Public Schools; Campbell County Public Schools has 13 juniors and 14 seniors enrolled; and 26 juniors and 23 seniors are enrolled from Lynchburg City Schools.
The area’s other regional high school programs — the Lynchburg Regional Governor’s STEM Academy and early college program — also saw similar dips in applications during the pandemic.
The STEM Academy is a program that partners with Central Virginia Community College to allow 60 juniors and seniors from high schools in Lynchburg City Schools and the four counties that surround it to study mechatronics, biotechnology, health science and cybersecurity at the college level.
The program accepts around 30 juniors each year, with three seats for Amherst County Public Schools, one seat for Appomattox County Public Schools, eight seats for Bedford County Public Schools, six seats for Campbell County Public Schools, seven seats for Lynchburg City Schools, and five at-large seats. Many of those juniors stay in the program for their senior year, so roughly 60 total students are enrolled each year.
While Bedford County Public Schools and Lynchburg City Schools saw applications increase slightly, the total number of applications from the five school divisions dropped more than 17% from 84 applicants for the 2020-21 school year to 69 for the 2021-22 school year.
However, Susan Cash, director of the STEM Academy, said she wasn’t very concerned about that slight drop and said there’s enough interest in the program to justify an increase in the number of students accepted.
“I wasn’t sad about our number of applications,” Cash said. “We had 25 or 30 slots and we had 70 applications. The math on that works.”
Like Smith, Dash held open houses and information sessions virtually during the past year, which she said likely accounts for the drop in applicants.
Cynthia Wallin, associate vice president for the division of arts and sciences at CVCC, said the number of applications for the early college program was down overall, but inconsistently across the five school divisions it serves.
While some school divisions saw a decline in applications, others remained consistent with past years or even increased their number of applications.
Amherst County Public Schools, she said, has ranged from about 60 to 75 applicants over past years. Bedford County Public Schools’ 2021 applications for the early college program remained consistent with past years, she said, but Lynchburg City Schools saw a sharp decline.
In 2019, Wallin said, about 75 Lynchburg City Schools students applied to the early college program in 2019. That number dropped to the 60s in 2020 and to the mid 40s for the 2021-22 school year. Wallin said that could have been related to the pandemic and the uncertainty students had about the 2020-21 school year and how it would look.
Cash said she and representatives with CVCC’s CTE Academy and early college program are planning to hold joint in-person informational sessions with sophomores at the surrounding high schools in order to walk them through all of the options and answer any questions they may have.
Wallin said CVCC is planning to take a more active approach to marketing the early college program to students this year.
Smith said the school is looking at ways to increase interest in the CVGS program and applications for the 2022-23 school year, and he’s excited to get back to visiting with prospective students in person. He said he hopes to resume information sessions and school visits around November.
“Things are changing so quickly, but I’m hopeful,” he said.