Institute first in Va. to partner on work-based learning model

The Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) is the first in Virginia to enter a regional partnership with Raleigh-based nonprofit District C, bringing an innovative work-based learning model to Southern Virginia and surrounding localities. The unique program will help fill the skills gap experienced by employers and will help meet the work-based learning needs of Virginia high school students.

District C’s proven model, covered by Forbes and Education Week, coaches diverse teams of students to solve real, complex problems for local businesses or organizations. District C recently partnered with the new Boost by Kaplan program, joining other well-known program partners Google and Myers-Briggs.

“The leadership of District C have amassed phenomenal educational experience over their careers, including work with Harvard and Kaplan,” said Dr. Julie Brown, Director of Advanced Learning at IALR. “Their unique learning model addresses the true needs of employers of the new economy – a need for workers with complex problem-solving, leadership and collaboration skills with the ability to work in diverse teams.”

As Education Week mentions in its feature story on District C, “so-called ‘soft skills’ are in high demand, but employer surveys consistently show that students are entering the workforce without them.” As technology exponentially improves and automates routine and manual tasks, employers place a deeper emphasis on hiring individuals with higher level thinking and decision-making skills.

“We are so excited to be joining the great work that is already going on at IALR and in Southern Virginia,” said Anne Jones, District C Co-Founder. “We can’t wait to see the value the District C Coaches and their students will bring to the community.”

IALR’s Next generation Of Work (NOW) program addresses the soft skills gap by using the District C model to create genuine, collaborative, problem-solving experiences for high school students. The program starts with coaching student teams on District C mindsets and tools before introducing them to a business partner with a real problem. For about three weeks, students research, brainstorm and develop their solution. Coaches guide them through the process, but the solutions and final pitches are 100 percent student-driven. The plans are shared with business partners before a virtual audience.

“Virginia has recently emphasized the importance of work-based learning, or WBL, and is endeavoring to increase the number of students participating in these experiences,” said Jessie Vernon, Program Coordinator at IALR, who leads the NOW program. “The District C model helps address many of the challenges of providing meaningful WBL on a large scale, and increasingly important, in a virtual setting. For a minimal time investment, the partnering business positively impacts anywhere from four to 12 students. The District C model is an amazing tool to add to our ‘WBL tool kit’ in Southern Virginia.”

To date, IALR has held two NOW cohorts virtually – one in the spring of 2020 for students of the Academy for Engineering and Technology (AET) and one over the summer open to any interested high school juniors, seniors or recent high school graduates. Four organizations have participated: Dan River Year AmeriCorps, Dewberry, Kyocera SGS Tech Hub and Tyton BioSciences; 33 students have completed the program; and three educators and IALR staff members have trained and become certified as District C Coaches. According to NOW survey results from business participants, all four partners indicate they have implemented or plan to implement at least part of the solutions students provided.

“The pleasure and honor of this project was all mine. It is inspiring to see young people critically think like that,” said Jason Wells, President of Kyocera SGS Tech Hub. “I found the time invested very worthwhile.”

IALR will continue to offer the NOW program to students throughout Southern Virginia and beyond with all activities online for the time-being. Additionally, IALR and District C hope to offer a Coaches Institute for educators in early 2021. Participating educators would receive training and become District C certified coaches so they can implement the model directly at their schools. Educators and administrators interested in the Coaches Institute should contact Jessie Vernon at IALR and District C will host a virtual information session at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 5 for business and community members to learn more about how they can become involved. To register, visit For more information about NOW, visit

The institute serves Virginia as a regional catalyst for economic transformation with applied research, advanced learning, advanced manufacturing, conference center services and economic development efforts. Its major footprint focuses within Southern Virginia, including the counties of Patrick, Henry, Franklin, Pittsylvania, Halifax and Mecklenburg along with the cities of Martinsville and Danville. For more information, visit


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