Regional education center to be led by Hampton High grad

New Horizons Regional Education Center, the program that serves students from six Peninsula-area school divisions, has a new director.

Hampton High School grad Casey Roberts took over from now-retired Joseph Johnson as director this summer.

Roberts, a fifth-generation educator, most recently served as principal at Smithfield High School for three years, before serving as a teacher, instructional specialist and assistant principal.

He had been slated to begin a new role as Isle of Wight’s director of innovation and strategic planning on July 1, where he would have lead the division’s career and technical program and grown business partnerships with the schools.

But when the opportunity at New Horizons opened up, he said he couldn’t pass up applying for a similar position on a much larger regional scale.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Roberts, 34, said in his office at the Butler Farm campus in Hampton. “These jobs don’t open up often, and it was my way of getting out of my comfort zone. I was very comfortable being a high school principal. This is a step above that.”

New Horizons is a consortium of six school divisions — Gloucester, Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, Williamsburg-James City County and York — and its board is made up of representatives from each division’s respective school board.

New Horizons serves more than 1,500 students each year, as well as 1,200 adult learners. More than $16 million of its $19 million budget this year is funded by the local divisions who send its students to the various programs.

Those programs range from career and technical education and special education to the Governor’s School for Science and Technology and a youth workforce center.

The six superintendents, with Hampton’s Jeffery Smith as the superintendent-in-charge, also influence the work done. Smith spoke highly of their pick of a new leader, the first since Johnson took over in 2005.

“He certainly brings visionary leadership,” Smith said. “He served the young people in Isle of Wight as principal of Smithfield High School, and there demonstrated exceptional leadership especially in the area of career and technical education. We look forward to what he brings to the table as we move forward.”

During his time at Smithfield, the school division secured a $3 million donation from Smithfield Foods to help bolster CTE efforts there with new buildings and labs.

It’s things like that that Shelly Simonds, chairwoman of the board of trustees and a member of the Newport News School Board, said are exciting.

“He does seem to be very good at reaching out to employers in the community to find out what the needs are and how we can expand partnerships,” she said. “He’s already got some great partnerships started that I’m sure we’ll be announced in the coming months. He’s just all about creating more opportunities for students — and the opportunities are out there, we just need to be assertive to connect with the business community.”

Connecting those businesses and potential employers with students at New Horizons, who could study welding, pipe-fitting, certified nursing assisting, dental assisting and other hands-on, in-demand trades, is key for its future, Roberts says.

He wants to focus on apprenticeships, ways to get students from the classroom to settings where they’d actually use their skills to help them be ready for what’s next after graduation.

“The need is how do we compress the time and space between a kid finishing high school and employment,” Roberts said. “And there’s so many different avenues kids can take nowadays, and getting kids exposed to multiple avenues — not erasing that ‘you can’t go to college,’ not erasing ‘college is not a good goal to go for,’ but also saying, ‘Alright, you have college, and you have all these other avenues right here.

“If kids and parents had the opportunities to expose themselves prior to committing, you would get a better product in the end.”

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.