Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, Inc., which was founded in South Boston in 2007 to promote the spread of high-end academic offerings in low-income rural and urban school districts and later evolved to focus on innovative teaching strategies in K-12 classrooms, is now a part of James Madison University.

VASS, led by president and CEO Jennifer Stevens, announced Friday that it has entered into a memorandum of understanding to begin a new partnership with James Madison University’s office of professional and continuing education and college of education. Through the partnership, VASS will further develop classroom programs and support K-12 teachers through professional development and collaborative learning strategies.

“On behalf of the board and staff, I am thrilled for Virginia Advanced Study Strategies to become a part of JMU,” said Stevens, who becomes part of the JMU faculty along with three other staff members: Sandy Wilborn, director of programs; Darla Edwards, director of special projects; and Amanda Adams, director of public affairs.

“We have been working with faculty members at (JMU) for several years, and we have come to know and respect them as invaluable team members for many of our initiatives,” said Stevens. “In its 12-year history, VASS has accomplished a great deal, but this new partnership with JMU will certainly raise the credibility of our organization to new heights and make even more possible in the years to come.”

Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies began with an initial $13.2 million grant from the National Math and Science Initiative through ExxonMobil. Led by former Halifax delegate Ted Bennett, VASS’s first president, the initiative paid for Advanced Placement academic programs in struggling school divisions that otherwise would not have been able to afford the courses, nor support students who hoped to earn college credits by taking end-of-course AP tests, for which VASS paid the fees.

Over time, VASS’s mission shifted to a mission of arming teachers with innovative teaching strategies to raise student achievement, and providing the training and follow-through to make these strategies take root in the classroom. One of VASS’s recent initiatives — for which JMU has been a partner — is the Rural Math Innovation Network (RMIN), a research and development project funded by a 2017 Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

RMIN is a virtual networked improvement community of middle and high school teachers from 15 rural school divisions, collaborating to integrate strategies into classroom instruction that increase students’ growth mindset and self-efficacy in mathematics.

VASS has received more than $33 million in public and private funding in 12 years to support the preparation of students for college and careers, and to conduct research on new innovative education models. Since its inception, the organization has partnered with over 100 of Virginia’s public school divisions and has provided extensive professional development, classroom resources, and direct student support across the Commonwealth.

Through the partnership with VASS, JMU officials envision their own work to strengthen K-12 education in Virginia will receive a significant boost.

“It is with great excitement that we welcome Virginia Advanced Study Strategies to JMU,” said Carol Fleming, assistant dean of Professional and Continuing Education at James Madison University. “Having them be part of Professional & Continuing Education, a unit that responds to individual, business, and community needs through transformative educational programs and experiences, makes perfect sense. With both organizations having a focus on youth programs and teacher professional development, the partnership will do great things together.”

Melissa Lubin, dean of Professional & Continuing Education at JMU, said “the natural synergies that exist between VASS, the College of Education, and PCE will help us further our efforts in teacher development to meet the needs of today’s students. PCE is focused on providing quality educational opportunities to our local community, region, and state. Partnerships like this are such a vital component to economic development across the board.”

Mark L’Esperance, dean of the College of Education at JMU, said, “This partnership allows us to continue to stay focused on supporting public education from a variety of vantage points. Providing professional development resources for teachers to continue learning is critical for student success in classrooms. Similarly, teachers feel more accomplished when they are provided the knowledge, tools, and resources to create memorable learning experiences for students.”

Currently, VASS is led by a 14-member board of directors, two of whom are L’Esperance and Fleming. Kenn Barron, JMU professor of psychology and co-director of the Motivation Research Institute, is a research consultant on VASS’s RMIN project and has provided training and support for staff and teachers throughout the project period.

Another major initiative of VASS — a statewide talent pipeline network to support communities with their efforts to improve education and workforce alignment — will be kicked off in September with an event entitled The Strategies Xchange: Where Education and Business Align. The theme of this two-day conference, planned by VASS with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Virginia Department of Education as participating hosts, is “Strengthening Virginia’s Talent Pipeline with Education-Business Partnerships.” It will take place at the Hilton Hotel in Norfolk on Sept. 16-17.

For more on Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, which has its office at 1100 Confroy Drive, South Boston, visit the website:

From The News & Record