Yancey Elementary School

A testament to how remote Yancey Elementary School seems is that I can not recall ever driving near it in past decades, despite being a resident and often tourist in the southern part of Albemarle County. To get to Yancey from my house on 29 South there are 3 main routes: drive to Scottsville, and then take Route 6 West; drive to Nelson County to take Route 6 East; or drive the most “direct” way through the hamlets of Red Hill, Alberene and Esmont. This most direct way is 18.4 miles and takes 34 minutes from my home. There may be as many of 3 convenience stores within the geographic area that the Yancey Elementary district covers. The small community of Esmont sits about 4 miles away, centered around a post office housed in a former bank.
Yancey has the smallest enrollment of any school in the county and is situated between the other two smallest schools, Red Hill and Scottsville. 73% of the approximately 130 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Because of the relative remoteness, compounded by the terrain of the area, the communities surrounding Yancey have no high-speed Internet, and limited dial up. There is some cell reception from some providers.
Yancey has struggled for years to achieve whatever benchmark test is in use at the time. As Principal Dommer explains it, teachers and students become familiar with a format of a test, and achieve success, and then the format of the test changes, and the students do poorly. To attempt to combat this trend, and make a lasting difference in student achievement, Yancey has begun its inaugural year of grade banding. All students in the school are in 2 grade bands, K through 2 and 3 through 5. This splits the school just about evenly, and allows for greater ease in grouping for math and reading. Certainly not all learning is linear, but there are certain concepts that are hierarchical in the early grades. For instance, in math, a student must be able to count before learning to add. Similarly, in reading, a student must know their letters before spelling. Students in kindergarten, first or second might be at these stages of learning, while other K-2 students might be adding or subtracting or reading. It is helpful to have 5-6 students who are learning similar topics to be in a group. If you only have 18 kindergarteners, it can be hard to group them to give appropriate instruction. A larger school might have 60 or even 120 kindergarteners to a group– sheer numbers make it more likely that you will have more learners at any one level.
As part of the restructuring of Yancey, all teachers were required to reapply. Principal Dommer said that there were over one hundred applicants for the 16 seats available, an unprecedented number compared to usual applicant pools for Yancey. He was able to hire teachers who were enthusiastic about the new model, including about a third new graduates from the Curry School of Education at UVa, a third teachers transferring within the district, and a third rehired from the existing Yancey staff. He also was able to prioritize the hiring of teachers who had dual endorsements such as in elementary and special education, or elementary ed and reading, so that teachers were endorsed and qualified to provide all needed instruction in the classroom.
While the Yancey area sits in the middle of some of the finest soapstone mines in the world, there has been limited development of the industry since the Great Depression. There aren’t many obvious employment opportunities for the families of the Yancey area. With Simpson Park across the road, Yancey provides a focal point for the community. Yancey opens on weekends to provide Internet access to families. Parents have indicated a need for job training to help them find and keep employment. Rural schools such as Yancey can be a key part of providing opportunities and community beyond educating K-12 students.

Scottsville Elementary

Scottsville Elementary sits 20 minutes from Charlottesville down Route 20 South. Route 20 is actually a main artery from Orange to Charlottesville to Sprouse’s Corner, but its two-ane, winding curves make it feel dangerous and remote. Scottsville Elementary was built in 1974 and expanded in 1981 to replace the Scottsville school that sat within the town limits. Scottsville was historically a thriving and busy town when the Kanawha Canal was a major means of transporting goods to port in Tidewater Virginia. From 1744 to 1761 Scottsville was the county seat when Albemarle County contained Buckingham, Fluvanna and Amherst counties. As transport of goods shifts from canal boat to train and truck, Scottsville’s light dimmed. Although Scottsville has had many attempted renaissances over the years, it still lacks opportunities for the working class families that live in and around the town.
One source of steady decent pay was the Uniroyal factory which ultimately closed in 2009.
As such, Scottsville Elementary, deals with generational/rural poverty. 40% of Scottsville Elementary School students are eligible for free/reduced lunch. Rural poverty is different in some ways from urban poverty. Disadvantaged students may end up with similar outcomes, but the individual family struggles may look different. Schools at a distance from the university and the urban center, like Scottsville, suffer from a lack of volunteers. UVa students and others living in Charlottesville are unwilling to drive the 30 minutes one way to volunteer at the school, limiting the amount of individualized attention students receive and the variety of adults that they encounter. Rural students are less likely to be able to access after-school or cultural programs due to the time and resources driving to Charlottesville requires.
One of the challenges with small underperforming schools, like Scottsville, which only has 190 students, is that the ostensibly fair method of allocating resources through assigning a certain number of FTEs (Full Time Equivalents) per child creates a disadvantage for schools with high levels of remediation. If there are 100 students in two schools, and they have respectively 20% and 90% pass rates on the SOLs, the school with the 20% pass rate will be obliged to have more literacy and math specialists in order to achieve higher pass rates. The hiring of these specialists make it impossible to hire other types of instructors, such as art, music, or foreign language, because the school’s allotment of FTEs has already been used. In this case, students who need remediation in math and reading do not have access to instructors specializing in the subjects that can inspire them and support learning in the core subject areas.

Monticello High School

Monticello High School, built in 1998, is the second newest school in the county, and sits on a relatively new connector road between Avon St Extended and 20 South across from Tandem. When Monticello was built it was heralded for it’s environmentally friendly design, and use of skylights. Monticello looks large and sprawling on its hill with parking lots spilling down to the athletic fields.
Monticello, like Western and Albemarle, houses an academy within the school. In this case, the focus of the academy is on health and medical sciences.
The layout of the school is interesting, because the bulk of classrooms opened onto smaller interior courtyards. Classes are assigned rooms not based upon department or grade level. This encourages students of various grades and content areas to mingle, at least in the halls.
Principal Turner and I toured several of the “specials” classes and areas– shop, the TV station, the music studio, the computer lab where students work on repairs.
As I listen to high level discussions of students and schools– the level at which we discuss efficiencies and effectiveness– I am reminded of the realities of high school. As we traveled through the different areas of the school– and I saw various students I worked with in various capacities– it was obvious that students grouped themselves according to interests, appearance, and whatever semi-magical methodology that high school students use to divide themselves into cliques.
I fear sometimes that as bureaucracies, legislatures, and boards make decisions at a remove from the students and families that they serve, that they will over-generalize their own experiences, and forget that some young people just want to hide down in the computer repair shop and have their own dorkalicious conversations, while some youth want to plane boards and nail them up to create their own private b-ball court adjacent to their shop room, and other students want to work solo on their own musical masterpieces. On my brief perusal, all the students at Monticello seemed happy and able to find their own niches to explore their own personal nerd-dom. I think it’s the challenge of high schools to allow students a level of comfort and safety within their own defined zones, while also encouraging them to explore new, perhaps uncomfortable topics, as well as share their expertise with peers.
This is a hard balance to navigate, and I worry that when we start mandating one approach– whether it’s college track for every student, or online classes, or required dual enrollment– that we don’t appropriately take into account individual differences and approaches.

Broadus Wood Elementary School

Broadus Wood sits just north of the hamlet of Earlysville in a 1936 building with major improvements and renovations. I love a building with history and character, and the front of Broadus Wood speaks to its Art Deco origins with its rounded concrete, and thin, elegant typeface spelling out its name. Inside, Broadus Wood has been renovated, with bits of history still shining through in tilework and functional storage units. In 1994, Broadus Wood was expanded, with an 8 room addition and cafeteria.
Of all the schools I have visited, Broadus Wood is the most under capacity. After visiting school upon school where every available space is used, and reused, it was amazing to visit a school where room after room was open. Four or five classrooms are empty. Additional space was being used for pull out instruction– one teacher and one student in a classroom intended for 20 students. Both the music and art rooms are unused 2 days a week because of the master schedule. Meanwhile, neighboring Greer is way over-capacity.
Redistricting is challenging, especially in the tight confines of the Hydraulic/29 North/Rio area. How do you justify taking students from a school 2 miles away to one 5 miles away? There are many issues to consider when redistricting, and they intersect with some of the topics that we as a society have the most difficulty discussing, including race, class, culture, achievement and privilege.
As previously discussed, the urban ring is densely packed, and tends to be lower-income. There are many descriptors that one can use when discussing low-income families, including, disadvantaged, low-income, eligible for free/reduced lunch, under-resourced, and underserved. Low-income families come from every racial and ethnic group. Some low-income students are born in the USA to families where English is the primary language, some are born in the USA to families who primarily speak a non-English language. Some families have freely moved to the US, others have moved as refugees. Some low-income students experience an achievement gap with more affluent peers. I use low-income as a non-pejorative term, not to label or judge families, but to discuss the impact of fewer resources. Low-income families are not a monolith, but may share certain challenges.
Greer, the elementary school that is most overcrowded and in need of redistricting, is 77% disadvantaged, and 33% English Language Learners. The neighborhoods that have been discussed as being redistricted out of Greer are predominately low-income and non-white. It seems that Broadus Wood might be the school to receive redistricted Greer students, logically from a space standpoint, but problematically geographically and logistically. In terms of geography, it may seem illogical to parents to have their children bussed 7 miles to Broadus Wood, versus traveling 1.7 or 1.6 miles to Greer or Agnor-Hurt. There is simply not enough room at these urban ring schools.
When underserved families are redistricted to new, perhaps more-distant, schools, problems that are endemic to redistricting can be compounded. Parents from underserved families may not participate in community forums due to conflicting work schedules, lack of childcare or feeling that their voices are not valued. Underserved families may be less familiar or comfortable with the school environment. Parents may have negative or no previous experiences with the American educational system. Families may feel that they are being shunted from school to school because they are “unwanted”. Students may have a hard time assimilating into the school community due to language, culture or perceived or actual discrimination.
Parents may not have the transportation or time to travel to a more rural school to develop relationships with the teachers and administration, and they may not feel comfortable traveling to rural parts of the county where they are racial or ethnic minorities.
This is not an indictment of Broadus Wood, or the families. It is simply that redistricting, always problematic because of the relationships that families have developed within a school community, must be handled sensitively and with finesse when there are racial, cultural, economic and other differences in the communities being brought together. I think that diversity in these areas is beneficial to schools and their students, creating opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and competency, compassion, and broadening perspectives. I also think that the Broadus Wood administration, specifically Principal King, has the skills and insight to successfully unite current and future students and families into the Broadus Wood community.

Cale Elementary School

Cale Elementary School sits just south of town, on Avon St Ext. When Cale was opened in 1990, Avon St Ext was much sleepier than it now. Development that has occurred since then includes the connector road between 20 south and Avon St, the Food Lion, Lake Renovia, Foxcroft, Mill Creek, Monticello High School. Once you drove past the jail and the armory on Avon St Ext, you were in a rural and light industrial area, not the residential townside that Avon St now is.
Cale’s district now pulls from the one of the most densely populated pockets of the county. Besides all of the previously named subdivisions, Cale also pulls from Southwood, a 100 acre trailer park housing 1,500 residents that Habitat for Humanity purchased. Habitat has been improving the infrastructure of Southwood over the past few years, with plans to redevelop into mixed-income housing.
Cale has been implementing a World Languages Program for several years now. Selected kindergarteners begin their studies in a 50/50 English/Spanish program, and continue as they matriculate through their elementary years. Currently, third graders are the oldest students to be in the World Languages Program at Cale. The students receive 50% of their content instruction in English from one teacher and 50% in Spanish from another. As Principal Jones explained, 0-6 years old is when language centers in the brain are still developing and learning a language is the most natural and easiest. Because there are sufficient numbers of native Spanish speakers, it is possible at Cale to have a 50/50 classroom. Both native English and Spanish speakers benefit from this program by having literacy and fluency in two (or in some cases more) languages. Delaying language learning until high school, and only as an elective for selected students, does not result in students who can progress beyond “tourist” language levels.
I am often jealous of the students I work with who can speak multiple languages. I’ve observed that my students who can speak 4-5 languages from multiple language families– for instance, Swahili, Mai Mai, English and French– can pick up additional languages more easily than I or other English-only speakers. We do our students a disservice cognitively, culturally, and socially when we restrain them by not providing them with non-English instruction.
In the 50/50 model no additional staff expenses are incurred because two teachers teach two classes, each for 50% of the time. Additional costs are incurred in the form of purchasing instructional materials and in professional development. Professional development has been one of the budget line items cut system-wide as the school budget has been balanced. This creates a problem for both new programs, such as the World Languages Program, and existing teacher needs, such as meeting 5 year re-licensure requirements.

Burley Middle School

Burley Middle School is an anomaly in that it’s the only non-charter Albemarle County school that sits completely within Charlottesville City limits. It cannot be a neighborhood school because all the neighborhoods that it serves are miles aways. Burley was the consolidated African American school for the city and county in the late 1950s and early 1960s before segregation was ended.
Burley’s footprint extends back from Rose Hill Drive in a series of parallel and perpendicular hallways. A hidden treasure sits on the front hallway– a large auditorium with a balcony that rivals other public spaces in the city and county. The original ticket office still stands in one corner.
Burley is one of the few schools that I have visited that has a sense of history to it. There are pictures of the African American graduating classes in the hallways. There are murals on the walls. I haven’t yet visited Broadus Wood or Stony Point– the two county schools housed in buildings older than Burley– but only Burley, Murray High School and Red Hill have had a noticeable sense of students who have come before and highlighted history beyond this moment. Certainly there are plaques at various schools of gifts “in honor of”, but at many of the schools the focus has been on a blank slate for the current students to make their own important, but ephemeral mark.
Burley is unique amongst the Albemarle County middle schools in that all 6th grade students are required to take a music elective. Students can choose between band, choir, strings, and a non-performance music appreciation course. Principal Asher said that having such a strong music program has brought the Burley community together, and creates a common language and bond. The winning trophies from musical competitions are proudly displayed throughout the main office.
Another way that Principal Asher is hoping to create common vocabulary and standards, has been the creation and implementation of rubric of student writing standards. This table describes strong, average, needing improved, and needing attention work across three strands, central idea & support, word choice & vocabulary, and mechanics & usage, and is to be used by all teachers in all subject matter. If students turn in work that falls into the “needs attention” category, then the work is to be returned, and redone in order to be accepted. To be considered “needs attention”, work would be missing capital letters or end of sentence punctuation or be a run-on sentence. By having a clear and understandable rubric that all teachers use– language arts and social studies teachers, as well as math and science– it reinforces that these are consistent writing standards that all students must adhere to, and that clear communication is valued in all subjects.
This language arts rubric was written and modified last year, with school-wide implementation taking place this year and last. Principal Asher hopes to begin the process of identifying and creating the next school-wide subject rubric this upcoming year.

Henley Middle School

Henley sits opposite Brownsville Elementary, and across the road from Western Albemarle High School. Solidly rectangular, Henley was built the same year as Jouett Middle School, and shares the same floor plan.
My overwhelming impression of Henley was the students themselves. I was touring the building just prior to lunch, and in the middle of several class changes. As the bell rang, the formerly quiet halls were awash with young people. 6th-8th grades are those years that students hit growth spurts before and after their peers. Youth of all sizes suddenly filled the halls to the brim. Individual boys and girls towered over classmates of the same age and all rushed and chattered to the next class. “You’d better stand to one side,” Principal Costa cautioned me. Standing in the middle of the hall was somewhat akin to being at the beach, and letting the waves of water, or in this case, students, swirl around you.
During lunch, I was witness to a new experiment taking place. The students wanted to have a personalized soundtrack of music during their 20 minute lunch, and the principals had agreed to give it a try, with the caveat that the music had to be appropriate and curse-free. One young man had brought in a mix on a device to be played over the cafeteria’s sound system. As the music throbbed through the loudspeaker, the cafeteria chatter silenced, and then arose anew in questions and giggles. In the first minutes of this experiment, there was so much to observe. Boys towards the front of the room did some impromptu dance steps at their chairs. The boy who had created the mixtape felt the pressure of providing an entertaining mix– especially when an overly simplistic song went on too long. Female students near me rolled their eyes and proclaimed their disdain for the songs being played. Other students asked how they could get their music played.
On that day, playing the music was a result of a “why not?” mentality on the part of the administration, and an openness to try and iron out the kinks. Not far on the horizon was the spectre of rules and procedures in the interest of fairness and harmony. Principal Costa reminded the students several times of the need for the music to be appropriate– that parents would be upset at her, not at them. She mentioned that they’d have to figure out a way for students to be able to take turns in ways that would be fair. As the student went into adjust the music, he was encouraged by peers to turn the volume further up, so that the cafeteria filled with noise too loudly.
In the best case, Principal Costa and her administrative team, would be able to allow the students to self-regulate and come up with procedures and policies that would allow them autonomy, and self-governance. The low-stakes privilege of having music at lunch would be a learning opportunity for students to figure out systems that would make about 250 young people, if not happy about the day’s musical selections, at least acknowledge that the system in place was their own, and fair.
In the worst case, the administration could decide that it simply was too much trouble, and opt to play music of their own selection, or have no music at all. Parents could complain that they didn’t want their children exposed to “that” kind of music, and create grief for the administration. Students could find ways to undermine the experiment by bringing in subtlely inappropriate music, or claiming censorship.
All this is to say, a decision to play some student’s music could become so incredibly fraught and laden with potential pitfalls, that an administration could become conservative and battened down and afraid to grant freedoms. I was happy to see Principal Costa willing to work with the students, and willing to communicate her hesitancies and concerns with them. It seems ridiculous that playing some radio-friendly mix at lunchtime could be the kind of decision that becomes an issue, but we’ve seen it happen. Creating an atmosphere where students can feel ownership and autonomy in a large school is challenging, and I so appreciate the principals, teachers and administration that work to put it into place.

Western Albemarle High School

If you had told my 17 year old self that I would be returning to WAHS as a School Board candidate, she’d be relieved. Visiting as a School Board candidate would mean that I had managed to be alright despite skipping 60 days of school junior year and watching all my classmates march across the stage to receive their diplomas while I sat without. It’s easy to look back decades later and put a moment within a context and a trajectory, but I cannot forget how in those moments, as a 17 year old, I felt completely lost. This was the end of my public grade school education.

I had a lot going for me. I had a stable and loving family. I had strong mathematical, reading and writing skills. I tested well, and I lived in a town with first rate community college and university. I turned out alright, I think, but , as an educator, I carry the memory of what it felt to be a student in a school that is high-performing and lacking in diversity.

Western’s floor plan remains much the same since it was opened in 1977. The majority of Western’s classrooms are housed in a 2 story rectangular building with math, social studies, language arts, foreign languages, and sciences each in their own loosely designated areas. A long hall connects the auditorium, music rooms, and gymnasium. One addition has been built off the rear of Western for additional science classrooms, and to house the Environmental Studies Academy.

The Environmental Studies Academy is modeled off of the success of MESA at Albemarle High School. Students enrolled in the Environmental Studies Academy apply to participate in 4 years of concentrated study. Classes include Geography, Geology, Earth Science, and Recycled Materials and Processes. The 20 students in the inaugural class will took these classes last year, and will continue the intensive block scheduling classes until they graduate in 2018. The second cohort began this year with 40 students. The ESA’s footprint will grow with a recently approved expansion off the back of the ground floor, and will have more outdoor lab space, and a greenhouse.

Upstairs, more renovations are taking place in the library. The library was completely closed the first weeks of school as construction took place. On the day that I visited, one quadrant was closed off where books were stored in stacks, but the removal of the drop ceiling and subsequent painting was completed. The big space was full of talkative students during TAB (Take A Break). This was in contrast to my memory of the library during my days as student. The library was a serious and quiet space that was rarely casually entered. There were helpful, friendly, but fairly stern librarians who could help you with books or laser-discs(!), but you were there for a purpose. For better or worse, the library now feels similar to the cafeteria, in that it is a flexible, loosely-purposed room that can be rearranged for a variety of purposes. Happily, while I was there, the librarian came to update the principal on how she was engaging students in making the library/media center into a place that reflected students’ personalities and interests.

Agnor-Hurt Elementary School

Agnor-Hurt Elementary School sits above Berkmar Drive in the urban ring of Albemarle County. Agnor-Hurt opened in 1992, and is one of the newer schools in the county. Agnor-Hurt has undergone recent renovations, and has bright and cheery coral, turquoise and teal wall accents freshening the space.
Part of the renovations is a new large flexible room to “accommodate the needs of 21st century learner”. The move towards these open spaces has been evident at multiple schools that I have visited these past months. I’m always bemused by the pendulum swing of educational fashions. Additions were built at Red Hill and Scottsville in the 1970s, pods with open floor plans that closely mirror the renovations that I am seeing in schools now. As a first grader, I remember having class time in the open space. Several years later, permanent walls were erected. I think open classrooms can work great– allowing teachers and students to collaborate and be inspired by the best work of one another. I also think that mismanaged, open floor plans can be loud and chaotic to the detriment of learners. I think talented teachers can make almost any arrangement work, but I also recognize that 40 years ago we tried many of these ideas that are being presented to me as completely novel today.
Geographically Agnor Hurt sits one mile from Woodbrook Elementary, and two miles from Greer. The close proximity of these schools, and the fact that all 3 are at- or over-capacity, indicate how densely packed this area of the county is. Agnor-Hurt’s district is geographically split in half by 29 North and by Woodbrook’s district. Students come to Agnor-Hurt from the northern part of Rio Road west of 29 North, and down Rio Road on the east side, towards CATEC, Pen Park, and the Charlottesville Catholic School. That portion of Rio Road has been transformed in the past year or two by the addition of many more high density townhomes.
The combined area of the school districts of Agnor-Hurt, Greer, Woodbrook and Hollymead could fit into the area of any single other elementary school district in the county (except for maybe Cale, and I think we could just squeeze them in). 30% of our elementary school students live in less than 5% of the land area of our county. While the basic educational needs of all students remain the same regardless of where they live, the logistics of delivery are very different when one lives off a heavily traveled thoroughfare off a major artery, and another lives on the side of a mountain 30 miles from a traffic light.
One consequence of the county’s development of this area is how unfriendly these roads are to any non-vehicular travel. Agnor-Hurt is served by a series of 3-4+ lane roadways. Even though Agnor-Hurt is in a densely packed part of the county, and has a very small district footprint, students could not safely walk or bike from the vast majority of the homes served by the school. For parents who live in this area and do not have reliable or readily available transportation, the public transit system, CAT, is challenging to use to get to Agnor-Hurt because East and West Rio Roads are not served by the same bus line, and they would have to transfer, resulting in a minimum 30 minute ride from Pen Park to Agnor-Hurt. On the northern portion of the urban ring we’ve managed to create all the transportation inconveniences of a sprawling city.

Hollymead Elementary School

Hollymead Elementary School shares a campus with Sutherland Middle School in the heart of the Hollymead subdivision off of 29 North. Hollymead is a rectangular building with tidy and orderly halls and classrooms. Recent renovations have updated the library and enhanced an interior courtyard with entrances from the library, art room and hallway. The courtyard can be used as an auxiliary classroom space– and already is in heavy use by the art teacher.
When asked about challenges particular to Hollymead, Principal Teel, who happens to have been my first grade teacher, enlightened me about the challenges of managing morning arrival of over 500 students who arrive in a variety of methods.
Each morning 9 school staff and an Albemarle County sheriff are responsible for varying arrival points. There are multiple crosswalks that must be supervised for walking students crossing streets. Those streets are busy with cars and buses transporting other students. Adding to the fray are students who ride bikes to school. In about 30 minutes 500 kindergarteners through fifth graders enter the building, and make their way to their classrooms.
Unanticipated challenges can arise, and must be dealt with sensitively. Several years ago new rules about dogs had to be implemented because of safety concerns. Some children were afraid of other families’ dogs, and in their agitation could put themselves at risk. Other issues arose from dogs in cars acting aggressively as school personnel helped students exit. One protective dog bit a school worker who was helping a student during arrival. These incidents resulted in having to institute policies about dogs. Now walked dogs must stop at a distance from a school, and cars containing dogs have to park, and the parent must walk the child to the building.
Issues such as these must be handled sensitively. School personnel have to deal with such complicated and fraught situations regularly. During my conversations with principals, we’ve discussed such things as custody and visitation disagreements and feuding families. Schools have the mission of educating students, but they are also charged with protecting children and the learning environment. It likely doesn’t occur to the average person that part of that stewardship involves setting policy about family pets, and negotiating changing family status.