By 2025, there will be a 10 million job shortfall in the skilled labor market in the US. The average age of skilled workers is 55 years old. Rising to meet these challenges, the new Emil + Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center will prepare Winchester Public Schools students and community members for the new workforce of tomorrow. The project is a product of multiple funding sources, including private donations, grants, and an unprecedented amount of state funding. A radical transformation of an existing unused elementary school, the mission of the Center is to ensure that every student is prepared and empowered with a marketable skill that leads to full, high-paying employment and that every regional industry is fully supplied with dedicated, skilled workers that will sustain and improve their business model.

“If we can help educate and give people the chance to make good wages, and also give back to the community while we’re doing it, what bigger win can there be?”

Jimmy Robertson, Coordinator of Innovation, Career Technical Education,+ Business Partnership, Winchester Public Schools
Photo by Lincoln Barbour. Courtesy VMDO.

A joint venture with Lord Fairfax Community College and local industry partners, the Shihadeh Innovation Center is a hub of workforce development for the community. Using hands-on learning strategies, students develop the necessary skills that lead to marketable certifications. Industry partners play an active role in the development of the program of study, while also committing to work-based learning opportunities for students. Lord Fairfax Community College provides instructors and equipment for certification and credit-bearing courses.

The Center embodies Winchester Public School’s motto of “Learning for all, whatever it takes.” The culture at the Innovation Center is interdisciplinary and organized into industry themes where CTE teachers, academic teachers, and students work together on real-world problems. All John Handley High School students have the opportunity to apply their academic knowledge to practical skills at the Innovation Center while adults and professionals can learn a new trade to re-enter the workforce or mentor youth interested in their professional field.

The Innovation Center is organized around three academies — Professional Skills Academy, Health Sciences Academy, and Information Technology Academy — each offering programs that will equip students with the skills and credentials needed for their future careers.

Designed by VMDO and partners Reader + Swartz Architects, the building houses CTE classes currently offered at Handley High School, featuring high intensity trades and professional skills labs, a health sciences suite, and STEAM lab spaces that support cybersecurity, digital design, robotics, and computer technology. High visibility work labs, dynamic collaboration and presentation spaces, abundant natural daylighting, healthy material and air quality, and reduced energy use were all major design drivers.

As all learning is fundamentally social, students must learn to collaborate, laying an important foundation for communication — an essential prerequisite for students to practice critical thinking and creative innovation … which ultimately helps develop the confidence to take risks and iterate on failures.

To do this, civic learning needs to be part and parcel of the current movement across many schools in America to equip young people with 21st-century skills. Advances in the science of learning have bolstered the 21st-century skills movement. Learning scientists offer that young people master math, reading, and science much better if they have an educational experience that develops their social and emotional learning competencies — like self-awareness and relationship skills which are the foundation of later workplace skills — and puts academic learning in a larger, more meaningful context.

Alongside academic competencies, these students have support spaces to spearhead small group projects and collaborative work. Universal design principles were used to make all spaces accessible, and corridors were purposed for independent learning and collaboration while making programming visible. The Community Cafe is a choice touch-down space for independent learning and sharing a meal.

Photos by Lincoln Barbour. Courtesy VMDO.

The Professional Skills Academy addresses the skills gap in our workforce by equipping students with technical skills and training in state-of-the-art lab spaces that support hands-on, real-world projects.

State-of-the-art Maker Foundations, Welding, and Carpentry Labs include equipment and tools to support hands-on training in materials assembly and construction techniques. Adjacent shared classrooms are utilized for lessons on safety, compliance, and technical content.

In addition, flexible lab spaces are equipped for instruction in Plumbing, Mechanical, and Electrical trades, and support evening classes in partnership with the local community college.

Students within the Health Sciences Academy gain skills and knowledge in lab spaces that emulate real-world settings. The Health Sciences Academy provides students a foundation for postsecondary education or workforce readiness in certified health-related professions. Students explore core content with technology through integrated projects, case studies, and focused learning experiences by exploring core content with technology through integrated projects and focused learning experiences.

Highly specialized equipment enables students to practice in a clinical laboratory setting while still being in a safe and supervised learning environment. Opportunities are available for virtual and simulated experiences to further enhance learning. The Nursing Lab emulates a real-world hospital environment with state-of-the-art equipment donated by community partners. Adjacent Simulation Labs and an ambulance pad allow for supervised emergency scenario simulations and testing.

The mission of Advanced Technologies Academy is to keep pace with innovation to support student success by empowering a diverse student body to succeed in a competitive world by promoting academic concepts and technological skills. The Architectural / Engineering Drafting Lab supports a vibrant program of design and fabrication. Shared 3D printers and plotters located on the adjacent mezzanine make fabrications visible to all students. The adjacent Computer Tech Lab is on display through the original stage opening.

To complement the adjacent academic programs of Handley High School, the Innovation Center is infused with flexible, technologically advanced spaces that support discovery and experimentation. Increasingly, hands-on spaces that support architecture, engineering, cybersecurity, computer networking, and systems technology are in demand and deserve an innovative home with real-world technical resources.