Pr. William Governor's School gives students a preview of college math, science

Varun Gupta and Josh Paquin in a biology class at the Governor's School @ Innovation Park.
Varun Gupta and Josh Paquin in a biology class at the Governor's School @ Innovation Park. (Karen Dalfrey)
By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Manassas Park teenager Briana Carter said she struggled with classes and adjusting to a new school when she started at Manassas Park High a few years ago.

But now, she said, it is a different story as she plans to finish her high school career with some of the brightest students from the Prince William County area at the new Governor's School.

"My teachers helped me get stronger, and I applied myself more to get to where I am," said Briana, 16. "I'm still a little nervous . . . but in the end, I think I can do it because I always push myself in ways I don't even know how."

Briana is one of 64 Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park juniors who attend the Governor's School @ Innovation Park on George Mason University's Prince William campus. The school, approved by the Virginia Board of Education last year, offers a rigorous half-day program in which students focus on math, science, engineering and technology. It is the 19th Governor's School in Virginia and the first to be associated with a four-year university.

"One of the best parts is being a part-time college student; you get to use the university library, and they have so many resources there," Briana said. "This program will also teach me to think more outside the box and become a better person, not just academically, but emotionally."

Led by director Karen Dalfrey, the Governor's School offers students two years of college-level courses, hands-on activities, problem-solving exercises and access to Mason's laboratory facilities. Dalfrey said that one of the first projects students tackled was how to make Mason's Prince William campus more environmentally friendly.

"I thought this program would be cool, because you get to go to college while still going to high school," said Brendan Wiggins, 16, a Governor's School and Osbourn Park High student. "I also think it will give me a nice edge when applying for college."

The Governor's School, which ends at 11:15 a.m. each day when students return to their home schools, will include a mentorship component in the second semester. Dalfrey said students spend the first semester researching and narrowing down an area of interest before being paired with a mentor at Mason or a Northern Virginia business.

"I'm really looking forward to the mentoring part and getting hands-on experience in the field," said Kyle West, 16, a Governor's School and Osbourn High junior. "Hopefully that will help me decide what kind of field I want to go into."

Kyle, the student representative on the Governor's School advisory committee, said he questioned joining the program because of the workload and time away from his home school, where he is involved in extracurricular activities. But, he said, the Governor's School will challenge him -- especially in math -- and look good on a college application.

"This is a one-of-a-kind, innovative program," said Kyle's mom, Cindy West. "Kyle is very bright and . . . this is really truly the first time he has been challenged; that's why I am so happy with this program."

The Governor's School @ Innovation Park was a three-year project, getting started with a $100,000 grant from the state. Ron Carmichael, executive officer of Mason's Prince William campus, said the university wanted to host the program because the math and science curriculum coincides with the basic mission of the Prince William campus.

Carmichael said that although the program is up and running, the one snag was hiring its leader. The Governor's School board had wanted to hire a director by January but didn't hire Dalfrey, former coordinator of the Biotechnology Center at Osbourn Park, until the spring. Carmichael said it was hard to find someone with the right credentials.

The program "is still kicking off and getting itself upright, but I'm glad I did it," Kyle said. "The students are also still kind of segregated [by home schools], but we're breaking down the walls. There will be a bunch of nerdy-kid parties soon."

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