Monthly Archives: July 2015

Jouett Middle School

I had visited Jack Jouett Middle School during my days as Program Director at C4K, so I didn’t tour the school building itself. During this visit I focused on talking with Principal Kathryn Baylor about needs and challenges particular to Jouett.
A major change in our community in the past decade or so began when the International Rescue Committee chose Charlottesville as a relocation site. The IRC relocates refugee families from places of conflict. It would be misleading to say that the IRC relocates families from their home countries– many families have already been forced to flee their home regions and have been living in refugees camps in a foreign-to-them country. The IRC brings these traumatized families to the Charlottesville area, sets them up with housing and jobs, and enrolls the children in grade school.
The majority of IRC families currently live in two middle school districts: Buford, in the city, and Jouett, in the county. Overcrowding at one of Jouett’s feeder elementary schools, Greer, is requiring redistricting, which means that the redistricted ESL students would attend another county middle school, likely Burley. Principal Baylor pointed out particular challenges with moving this population, that, like so many problems that schools face, have little to do with what happens in the classroom, but with the peripheral logistics. Imagine that you have to navigate the Charlottesville area without a car, without speaking English. Imagine that you’ve figured out how to navigate the 2-3 Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT) buses that you need to get to visit your child’s school. Imagine now that the new school is in a completely different direction.
Principal Baylor described some of the many small details that you have to know to effectively serve this population– who else lives in the neighborhood who speaks that language? What is the service that you call to get a translator? She allowed that another school could pick up this knowledge, but that the time spent learning these critical details would be disruptive to these children’s educational experiences.
ESL students are not the only at risk demographic that Jouett serves. As the Charlottesville area grows, and downtown locations become more desirable and expensive, families eligible for free or reduced lunch have been pushed to the outer urban ring, and have been enrolled in county schools. Low income families are disproportionately less likely to have a family member who has completed college. The support and knowledge that a family member can bring to the college journey is immeasurable. Access to education, particularly college, is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty.
To help high achieving, first generation college students, Jouett implements the college preparatory program AVID, as do many of the county schools. The first cohort of Jouett students to go through 6 years of AVID through middle and high school just graduated from Albemarle. As a national demonstration school, Jouett is a leader in implementing the AVID program. In addition to offering interventions for underserved populations during the school day, Jouett partners with the Boys and Girls Club to host an after school program. Jouett benefits from being adjacent to Albemarle High School, so is able to offer an after school activity bus. In addition, Jouett’s location on the urban ring means that it is able to host many UVA student volunteers.
I’ve visited 3 of the 5 county middle schools now, and the differences between them reflect how diverse Albemarle County is. Sutherland reflects the mostly suburban nature of the 29 North corridor, Walton is predominantly rural, and Jouett sits at the outskirts of the urban ring. While the students’ experiences are diverse, their needs remain the same, and the challenge becomes how to address those needs, even given instances beyond the school’s control.

Albemarle High School

All the many times I’ve driven by Albemarle, it’s never looked big enough to have the largest student body of the county. At 1900 students, AHS is nearly twice as big as Monticello and Western Albemarle High Schools. This body of students include those enrolled in MESA, the Math, Engineering and Science Academy, a school within a school, which prepares students for a college major within the Engineering disciplines.
Albemarle is filled to the gills with students and staff. Principal Thomas showed me former closets that are now remodeled into 2 teacher office spaces. Rarely do teachers have their own room; the vast majority of rooms are in use every period of the day.

Two large rooms on our tour were in the process of being repurposed for a new pilot program for 9th graders who are below grade level. 65 students have been identified to participate. They will meet each day for several periods with a team of teachers who will focus on the areas of greatest need. This will allow students to receive extra concentrated time on the subjects where they struggle the most, but not spend excess remediation time in areas where they are relatively strong. This approach will hopefully allow students to develop greater skills, but will definitely free up their schedule to be able to participate in electives. So much of the time students who are below grade level in core subjects have all periods devoted to language arts and math, and therefore cannot have success or develop skills in less “critical” areas. When asked, Principal Thomas said that one of his major goals was to continue to increase the achievement levels of low income and ethnic minority students, some of whom are English Language Learners. This new program could be a step in solving this widespread problem.

Having taught Albemarle students at both ends of the economic and achievement spectrum– for instance, a student who lived off Garth Road, and attended MESA and later Stanford, and a student who lived in public housing and spent his first year out of high school in jail– I am passionate that each child should achieve his full potential and have as many options as possible. Both of these young men are warm, intelligent, kind, funny gentlemen. How do we do better? How do we celebrate the accomplishments and realized potential of one young man, while doing a better itemization of real costs of our failure to better nurture another’s lost potential. To be clear, the costs are real. We pay to house the prisoners at the regional jail. We’ve lost out on the taxes on his potential higher income. We may have lost out on what this young man could have contributed with his ideas and service– but I still have hope that this young man can find his footing in a world that has been unkind to him.
The path that this young man is on is not only a school problem, it’s our community’s problem. How can all of our interventions– schools, non-profits, social services, housing, counseling, etc– be more effective? The metric that I care about is not graduation rates; the metric I care about is the quality of life for all of the families in our communities. It’s not the responsibility of one teacher, one principal, or one school board member; it’s OUR responsibility.


Unlike the other Albemarle County schools I’ve visited thus far, you don’t “just happen” to drive by Sutherland Middle School– you purposefully have to turn off 29 North and drive blocks through residential neighborhoods. There isn’t even a marker for Sutherland on 29 North. You just have to know it is there.
I was last in Sutherland 11 years ago when I co-led a computer gaming camp that formed part of the research for my dissertation. Sutherland still presents as a new school, even though it just celebrated its 20th year. It shares a property with Hollymead, and feels like a well-contained block; the central parking lot is flanked by the two schools and playing fields.
Unlike Murray, well-entrenched in the city, and the rural schools I’ve visited, most children walk or ride their bikes to Sutherland. The middle school draws on the developments of Hollymead and Forest Lakes South which have their own streets with limited access to throughways. Sutherland is one of the more affluent middle schools in the county with about 17% of students receiving free or reduced lunch. Sutherland has a thriving before and after school community with students arriving early to attend a supervised study hall from 8:15 to 9:00, and free after-school clubs four days a week, until around 6pm. With so many students walking or biking, late day transportation is not a barrier.
Walking the halls of Sutherland, Principal Vrhovac showed off the murals that were painted by students, the band room, and the “Shark Tank” a Maker space room housed between two traditional classrooms. There are 2 additional rooms dedicated to Maker activities, including carpentry tools, video cameras, 3D printers, and a green screen. Although hearing the newest educational buzzwords, “Maker Spaces” and “STEAM” drives me a bit crazy, I am grateful that the connection between the digital and physical worlds is being made more obvious and relevant to young learners. For many years “technology”-infusion simply meant that computers were being purchased.
When asked what his priorities for the next few years were, Principal Vrhovac, who just completed his first year at Sutherland, answered that making sure that underserved populations– racial and ethnic minorities and low-income students– are getting appropriate services, and that the achievement gap for those groups is reduced. There was plenty of evidence that high achievers are thriving at Sutherland; I am very glad to hear that underserved students have an advocate in their principal.

Murray High School

Murray High School is housed in the building that was once Rose Hill Elementary. I was very familiar with the outside grounds, as I often played on the playgrounds that were there when I was a child. Inside, Murray has a comfortable scale, with soothing colors, punctuated with skilled student artwork decorating surfaces. This is the kind of school I would like to attend:, cozy, with the personalities of the students woven into the very walls. Unconditional love at Murray is $0.00, a sign proclaims.
Murray still labors under the sometimes perception that it is a suspension or disciplinary school, a problem compounded by history and place. Albemarle’s past alternative schools did have students “encouraged” to attend by administrations that were at a loss on how to teach them in their larger schools, and Murray shares a campus with the Enterprise School, which “provides specialized short term intervention to students requiring alternative placement for educational rehabilitation”.
The reality is, which I know well as both a student and an educator, there are simply students who don’t thrive in larger schools. And by “don’t thrive”, I mean they cannot muddle through with the regular teenage ennui and challenges. I know many adults who reflect back on their high school experience, and say things like “It was okay, I enjoyed this teacher and that class, and overall it wasn’t bad.” For some students, high school in a large facility, with hierarchical structures, social pressures, and economical, emotional, and/or developmental challenges, can be absolutely horrible.
Murray follows Choice Theory, and is a Glasser Quality Public High School. Students perform A and B quality work, and do not receive grades until that quality of work is attained. If students do not care for given assignments, they must work with the teacher to propose and complete an equivalent assignment. Students complete personalized annual Quality Work projects, examples of which include a 45-page essay on Hamlet, a rebuild of a Harley Davidson motorcycle (by a female student), and a complete CD of music, including cover art and digitization. Projects like these require that students build partnerships with collaborators, and develop the technical and soft skills needed to complete a long-term project. Students identify the ways in which their projects align with the county’s 21st century life long learner skills.
Moving to the Murray physical plant next year will be the Community Public Charter School, a middle school with an arts-and-literacy-based program, also following the Choice Theory model. I know two alum of CPCS and know that they love the hands on, active and small-sized program.
Murray also shares space with Central Office, two large rooms have been designated to be used for professional development because there is no other space in the County’s building. Initially that surprised me, since there are two County Office buildings, and then I recalled the difficulty I have had trying to reserve a room on a given day. Even with all the buildings the county owns, it seems that space is still a premium.


The last time that I was inside Walton was 1988 as I graduated from middle school. In the intervening years, I’ve driven past it many times. Walton sits remote on a small rise, with parking lots creating a buffer between the rural road and the school. While it’s surrounded by our Piedmont rolling hills, the closely mown grounds, athletic fields and parking lot make Walton feel in the country, but not of the country.
Inside, Walton has been modernized since my days of attendance — glass panels instead of the vinyl folding doors of my youth, and a bright, well-lit library. As the school was getting renovated in the summer months, Principal Dwier-Selden and I had a spirited conversation about a wide range of topics while seated in the amphitheater.
I love middle schoolers and their itchy-scratchy ways. Eleven to thirteen-year-olds are learning to be independent, developing social bonds outside of their immediate family and are capable of understanding more sophisticated concepts. Some of the perceptions and realities of middle schoolers can translate into challenges for a school. Parents may expect, and therefore inadvertently, encourage negative social behaviors. Parents may not feel as connected to the middle school as they did to the children’s elementary, particularly if their children are pushing them away as the young people assert their independence.
In addition, Walton deals with a large geographic district– students come from just outside of Charlottesville, on Avon St Ext all the way to the southernmost parts of the county near Esmont and Nelson County. Accompanying the geographic distance, there are cultural ones as well. Similar to the situation on the western side of the county, there are rural families who have generational ties to their homesteads, and families newer to the area who have settled in the developments that are part of the urban ring.
Walton, like the other middle schools in the district, does not have an afterschool program. From my time at Computers4Kids, I know that time and transportation are major barriers for students living outside of the city ring to have out-of-school activities. Many students do not get home from Walton until 5pm; their parents may not get home until 5:30 or later, and the costs in gas and time to return to town to take part in extracurricular activities are prohibitive.
Principal Dwier-Selden spoke of challenges in getting volunteers, particularly UVa students, to make the trip to tutor or mentor students. The round-trip travel time from Charlottesville to Walton is 40-60 minutes or more depending on where in Charlottesville you are.
I was struck by the energy and enthusiasm of Principal Dwier-Selden, and the students and staff at the school. Initiatives in the works include Friday night get-togethers where students can use the school for play, socializing and community-building. Parents with interest in robotics or other hands on activities will be invited to lead students in exploration– increasing exposure, but also building community within the school. Students already operate a morning coffee cart for the teachers, and manage the money and sales.
The day I was at Walton there were students taking part in summer school. They were happily building benches out of two-by-fours at the entrance. As I exchanged farewells with Principal Dwier-Selden, a young man came up to affectionately greet her with a quick hug. As I was introduced to him, he gave me a greeting squeeze. I was reminded how much middle schoolers still crave the attention and affection of their elders, even as they strive to establish their own young adult identities. That this young man felt comfortable greeting his principal and her guest in this way, indicated that he feels trust and safety in Walton and its administration.

Visiting Alb Co Schools: Crozet and Brownsville

On July 7, 2015, I began my tour of the 26 public schools of Albemarle County. I visited the two elementary schools serving the westernmost part of the county, Crozet and Brownsville. As I drove through Crozet, I was struck by how the small town seemed both familiar and un. The streets still narrow sometimes, but the new library stands solid near widened streets with planted medians. It’s lovely, and homey.
Driving past “downtown”, past Crozet Pizza, the scenery turns residential, pastoral and mountainous in quick succession. On the left is the historic Crozet School now housing the private Field School. Across the road, to the right, is the modern cinder block and brick Crozet Elementary.
Crozet Elementary was built to reflect Jeffersonian architecture, but in a modern cast. The first sight as you enter is a round room housing the library; the gym and cafeteria anchor the two opposing ends of the front hall. The classrooms wrap in an arch around these two large rooms, with a breezeway separating the library from the two-story classroom arc. Kindergarten-Grade 2 are downstairs, and 3rd through 5th are housed upstairs. From the outside, the window treatments of the classroom arc looks like a modernist take on the the Pavilions on the University’s Lawn.
The grounds of Crozet Elementary were my favorite part of the physical plant. The back of the school seems to stretch into rural infinity, with no discernable view of houses or development. There’s a native garden created by a class of 2nd graders 4 years ago, a tennis court funded by local foundations, the ever-present well-used soccer field (I remember when the now-ubiquitous soccer seemed an exotic sport), and a baseball field. There are white-painted gourds for bird nests, and a butterfly garden.
Principal Crummie and I talked about the particular challenges for Crozet Elementary. Albemarle County is often represented by images of wealth and privilege, but at Crozet 30% of students receive free or reduced lunch. There is often an achievement gap between students coming to Kindergarten having had plenty of socialization and educational opportunities, and students who are just beginning to recognize written letters. We discussed at length the need for the working class and working poor students to have access to high quality out-of-school activities, and the challenges that transportation– especially in more remote areas– can create.
About 5 miles away sits the solid 1960’s construction of Brownsville. I attended Western Albemarle across the road for 4 years, so was familiar with the building, but had never been inside. The typical cinder block construction had been warmed up by wooden “wainscotting” throughout the school. While Crozet seemed large, but reasonable to me, with about 300 students, Brownsville seemed huge at more than 700 students. Touring schools in the summer is always a little unfair– all the desks are shoved into corners, as floors are waxed and cleaned and walls painted, but both schools are bright and cheerful with sturdy, child-friendly furnishings.
Brownsville uses regions of the state as ways to help students navigate the halls. A new addition that houses K-1 blends well with the older construction, and the 50 year old main structure has aged well. There’s plenty of flexible instructional space, including an older gym that now houses the music department, an outdoor amphitheater, and a oddly-shaped interior nook that has become a flexible technology space.
For Brownsville, rapid growth from a country school to an outpost of wealthy suburbia has been challenging at times. Principal India Haun spoke of a supportive PTO that supports afterschool programs that enroll upwards of 300 students each session. Challenges include a school day that ends at 2:20, supported by an at-capacity 120 seat county-sponsored afterschool program that runs until 6pm. A priority of Principal Haun’s is to continue to maintain an average class size of 19-22. While that number is low relative to other systems, I completely understand her priority. Anyone who scoffs that a few additional children can’t make much of a difference, should be promptly left in a room with 25 ten-year-olds.

I don’t spend a great deal of time in the area west of 250 in Albemarle County. I certainly am shocked when I drive out that way, and see new subdivisions and shopping centers dotting the previously rural area. Visiting these schools I thought about the tensions that growth like this can engender. Brownsville’s enrollment has increased hugely in the past 5 years. 15% of their students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and those families tend to live in the mountainous Afton area. I would assume that the number of families in need has remained the same, but as the population of the school has grown the relative proportion of disadvantaged students has decreased. For these disadvantaged students, the need remains the same, but the profile of a school can look different, and priorities can change.
Both principals were sensitive to the needs of all of their students, and very interested in creating opportunities for success for students of all backgrounds. I came away thinking about the need for high-quality, affordable after-school care and transportation, and how important it is to build communities that bring together both newcomers and established families in a way that values the perspectives of both.