August 29, 2008

Alumna Leads Governor’s School

By Anna L. Mallory [email protected] 381-8627

Rebecca Phillips has something in common with the 170 students she oversees at the Southwest Virginia Governor's School.

She's been there.

Phillips, a 1995 graduate of the magnet program for math and science, said she hopes to use her experience at the school as an inroad to bond with students as she pushes them toward higher goals this year.

Phillips is a biology teacher at the school and took the helm as its director in July.

"I'm really looking forward to new opportunities," she said. "I think it's also motivational for the students to be able to say, 'Look what she's accomplished.' "

Like past directors, Phillips will split her time between teaching and administrative duties. She is the third director of the school, which serves eight school divisions in this corner of Virginia including 97 students from the New River Valley.

But Phillips is the newest leader in 14 years. She said the former director, Pat Duncan, was "the heart of the school," yet Phillips isn't shy about making changes to the program. Duncan retired at the end of last school year.

Phillips said she saw the opening as a shot at giving back to her former school.

John Wenrich, co-chairman of the school's governing board, said Phillips' alumna status, coupled with her research experience and time teaching at the school, helped her stand out among applicants.

"Her level of research is unique for students, who aren't used to doing that in high school," Wenrich said. "A lot of the former students are coming back and telling us because they did it [research] at the governor's school, they could jump right in during class."

Plus, Phillips' ability to continue teaching while leading the school, "really set the bar high," he said.

Phillips is shaking up the school's schedule, adding a critical- thinking program typically used in elementary schools and plans to ramp up the courses students can take to include engineering and cryptography.

The cryptography class is slated to start in the spring semester, and if New River Community College approves the engineering course work and instructor, the engineering class could begin as well.

Wenrich said colleges that governor's school graduates attend, such as Virginia Tech, had discussed the need for students to have introductory-level engineering courses. And, the course could help spur more interest in the science, he said.

Specially selected students from across the region attend the magnet school for three hours each morning while their home school districts pay tuition. All their classes are considered dual credit through the community college and must be approved beforehand.

A large focus in the year is a science fair project, which some students enter into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and Phillips wants to expand on that.

Phillips, who has a master's degree in pharmaceutical research, said she wants to see students boost the amount of research that goes into those projects and find more relevant topics. To that end, she has shortened the typical three-hour lab day, which takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to two hours. The hope is that students will dive into in-depth research during that time.

"Everybody thinks, 'If I do X to this, this will happen,' but there are a lot more ways to approach" a science experiment, Phillips said.

And, she admitted, students tire of the same subject after too long.

"When you know you have three hours to work, you let your work fill up that time," she said. The change will be a "more efficient use of time," she said.

Another program that will break up the lab time is Destination Imagination. Phillips chuckled as she admitted getting the idea for the program from her husband, who teaches fifth grade in Wythe County.

The program asks students to solve a complex problem that can take up to 12 weeks and offers them a chance to use a range of skills, such as artistic talent.

"It's a way of letting kids show their other, nonscience talents," Phillips said.

She said that branching out is important for students, who sometimes can feel pegged into their roles as science and math students.

Governor's school enrollment

Montgomery County 21

Radford 7

Giles County 23

Pulaski County 46

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