My first year of school was also the first year of occupancy of the current Red Hill Elementary School. I remember taking my placement tests in the now long gone two-story brick school house. The staircase of that former building still stands as the focal point of an outdoor courtyard, repurposed as a backdrop of a stage. Throughout the county I see this type of repurposing of spaces and reinvestment in interacting with nature. To see that in effect in my former school has particular resonance.
Red Hill serves about 170 students from the 29 South corridor from Interstate 64 to the Nelson County border. The district also includes the southern portion of Old Lynchburg Road, and the rural communities of Covesville and North Garden. This area of the county is established such that my family members are still considered relative newcomers despite living here for more than 50 years. Families with school age children live on the winding roads that intersect with routes 29 and 708.
The southern schools of Red Hill, Yancey and Scottsville each have significantly fewer students than the current county average. While I hear much talk of parity, with the implication that these smaller schools are missing out on advantages given to larger schools, in my mind (and likely nostalgia), Red Hill is the size that an elementary school should be, a size that creates a tight-knit, familiar community. That’s not to say that all aspects of a small school are positive. In a small school you are stuck with the same students and same teachers for many years, but there is a great deal to be said for learning how to create and sustain positive community over years of close living.
Red Hill sits on a rise that overlooks farmland still in use. Classrooms extend off a central hallway anchored on either end by the cafeteria and the gym. The “pod”, an octagonal space which predates the main hallway, houses 3 classrooms serving K-1 and one resource class. Because of Red Hill’s size, they’ve chosen to group the 6 grades into 3 grade bands– K-1, 2-3 and 4-5. Most students have the same teacher for two consecutive years, with occasional reassignment for a variety of reasons.
Red Hill will be undergoing renovations and reconfigurations to make its 30+ year blueprint more responsive to modern instructional methods. Working within the current budget strictures, and the concrete block construction is restrictive, there are plans to take out interior walls to allow flexible floor plans that allow for more collaborative work.
Similar to our need to consider personnel other than simply classroom teachers, we also need to expand our vision from simply classrooms to consider storage and workspace. Currently staff mailboxes, PTO supplies, and various workspace and storage is housed on the stage off the cafeteria. When the stage is used for school assemblies or performances all of the materials must be removed, to then be returned to their storage spots. While I was glad to inherit an abandoned pinata from a retiring teacher, most material is not so extraneous. Schools need spaces to store shared manipulatives, books and tools.
Meriwether Lewis Elementary School sits on Owensville Rd which connects Ivy and Garth Roads. It pulls from a section of Albemarle that has fairly stable growth because of its rural designation. Most available land has already subdivided into small scale 2-5 acre neighborhood developments or 15-30 acre lots with large McMansion-style houses. Meriwether Lewis, like Murray just down the road, has a fairly stable trajectory for student growth.
As I visit more schools, the conversations tend to turn to less obvious topics of conversation. Principal Irani and I discussed two topics new to me during my visit. Fresh from my visit from Murray, I mentioned my new understanding of FTEs (Full Time Equivalents) and how that connected to ensuring that there were enough teachers in your building. Principal Irani reminded me of all of the other personnel needed to run a school, the custodians, office assistants, bus drivers and maintenance. As we talk about teacher salaries, and paying a competitive wage to these professionals, it’s important that we also pay a living wage to the other people who provide a safe and nurturing educational environment for our youngest community members.
Principal Irani also gave me more information about the World Languages Program which will soon be piloted at Meriwether Lewis. Already successfully implemented at Cale, the World Languages Program gives students a chance to learn a foreign language beginning in elementary school. There are two different models– one an immersion program where one or two classes of students have instruction in a non-English language all day, in the other model a greater number of students have a 60-90 minute period of language learning once or twice a week. The language instruction is not centered around students learning grammar, instead content instruction takes place in the second language. For instance, students might have their science or art instruction in a second language. I’ve been reflecting on the American attitude toward language instruction. Recently I asked one of my students how many languages he speaks– he told me seven. Many of my students who have immigrated to the United States from Africa or Asia speak three or more languages– they might speak the colonial language of their country, their regional tribal language(s), the native language of their country, English, and even several more due to region or family. They have a fluidity of communication that I simply do not have. I wonder if we as a country will begin to appreciate the value of multi-linguistic communication and embrace foreign language instruction. It seems that by using the model being piloted at Meriwether Lewis that we can incorporate foreign language learning at a young age without it being a huge budget line item.
One of my earlier observations was reinforced by my trip to Meriwether Lewis: principals have an inordinate amount of responsibility. I’ve observed the relentlessly long hours that principals put in. And it doesn’t stop in the summer. As the principal, you’ve got to connect with the students, parents, teachers, support staff, superintendent and the school board. You’re responsible for everything from advocating for and managing the school’s budget, to overseeing the physical plant, to comforting a crying child (or for that matter, a weeping teacher). Many thanks to Principal Irani for his time and conversation.
Murray Elementary School is tucked away on Morgantown Road, a small thoroughfare that intersects 250 West on the way from Charlottesville to Crozet. Built in the 1960s, Murray was a segregated elementary school that served the African American families that lived on this byway sandwiched between the railroad tracks and route 250.
Murray, like so many county schools, has had multiple additions built over the years. Like many of the county elementary schools, Murray has 2 playgrounds– one serving the older grades, another serving the younger. These playgrounds are located off wings with classrooms for each age group. Unlike other schools, which emphasize soothing blue and greens as accents, Murray has strategically included energizing bright washes of red on selected walls.
Principal Green provided me with a much needed lesson in the ways that schools must work to staff each grade completely– basically, each school has an allotment of FTEs (full time equivalents) that are to be assigned to instruction. There are standards for student to teacher ratios that must be maintained. Before the beginning of the school year, each school’s enrollment is projected– based upon previously enrolled students, those who registered the previous spring, and those who indicated that they were moving out of the district. Ten days into the school year, the actual numbers of who has shown up are recalibrated, and allotments of staffing are changed accordingly. At this point, additional teachers may need to be hired or reassigned to meet the higher or lower enrollments of the school.
Because Murray’s district is solidly suburban without much undeveloped land, their student numbers remain fairly stable. Unlike other schools, there are not 200 hundred new residential units being added to the district, with the accompanying families with school age children. Murray still experiences growth and change, of course. One phenomena is that as families experience financial hardship, more families will live in one dwelling or apartment, so even without more units being added to an area, more children live in district.
Murray is not overcrowded, but it is full. While it could accept more students, it would be at the cost of areas that serve teachers and administration. Collaboration, planning and professional development require space. While a private school might have a strictly maintained number of available seats for each grade, a public school has the mission of educating all students living in a given area. A school might have 300 enrolled students, but it’s unlikely that each year that there will be precisely 50 students in each grade level. Schools have to be able to be flexible to accommodate “bubble” years where there is one grade level that is significantly larger than others. I am impressed by how each principal has to creatively solve puzzles of space and personnel while meeting the requirements of federal, state and local mandates, and the needs and desires of students and parents.
It’s unusual for anyone, let alone people who regularly arrive at work at 7am, to schedule an appointment at 5pm. Principal Molinaro of Woodbrook asked that we meet late so that she could give me her undivided attention. Our conversation centered on the particular challenges that have faced Woodbrook over the last few years. Up until recently, the subdivision and school of Woodbrook were majority white, affluent schools. As the community of Woodbrook aged, and newer subdivisions were built north of town, the school population diversified, to the extent that Woodbrook has become a majority minority school. About 50% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch.
Principal Molinaro has particular passion and expertise in working with underserved students. As we were meeting she took a phone call from a new parent who was confused about a call that she received. Principal Molinaro explained that it was a courtesy call to notify the family that they could expect door to door visits in their neighborhood. After she hung up, Principal Molinaro expressed a familiar truism to me– that many parents of underserved students did not have pleasant school experiences themselves, and how important it is to welcome them and make them comfortable in order to make them partners with the school.
A word that kept cropping up in Principal Molinaro’s conversation was “joy”. Having a joyous, collaborative, respectful school was her number one goal. She talked most clearly about something that had been mentioned in other school tours– the changing of the classroom model from desks in rows, to flexible physical layouts that really help learners learn. Young learners need to stand, sit, lie down and move. An outcome of this flexibility and freedom is a more social conflict and off-task behavior. Rather than being reactionary, and limiting classroom movement, Principal Molinari has mandated an end of day meeting where students take responsibility for discussing negative interactions from the day, and present solutions to preserve a positive classroom environment.
These are the skills that the SOLs don’t measure, and are so important as students move through life. Students need to negotiate and communicate with peers, teachers and employers. Students need to have the words, skills and confidence to advocate for themselves. It’s particularly important for underserved youth to explicitly receive the instruction in these skills, because their families may not have the same resources and experiences as more affluent or connected families.
Sixteen years ago I did my second student teaching stint at Stone Robinson Elementary School. Over the years as I’ve thought about who Stone Robinson serves, I’ve been hard pressed to name communities in that section of the county. I do my best when I describe it as who it doesn’t serve– North of the Scottsville district– but not so North as to to be in the Stony Point district. While I’m sure that families who historically lived in the Stone Robinson district identified their own neighborhoods and enclaves, those groupings weren’t large enough to have the name recognition to outsiders like White Hall, Earlysville, or Esmont do. More recently, subdivisions like Glenmore create their own communities. Principal Williams, beginning her first year at Stone Robinson, and I discussed the challenges of building a sense of community in a far-flung and diverse area as this district.
Stone Robinson has a fairly high percentage of economically-disadvantaged students for Albemarle County, and the lower SOL scores that often accompanies poverty. One of the challenges for schools that are perceived as doing poorly or being in decline is that more affluent families will opt out– turning to homeschooling, private schools, or even moving altogether. Albemarle County is still small enough that just a few families opting out of a school can result in a school moving from just passing Annual Year Progress to failing, and facing penalties from the state and federal governments. When affluent families opt out of public schools, they also remove intangible resources like parent involvement and cultural currency.
To turn around these trends, Principal Williams is going to spend her first years at Stone Robinson working to build community, and raise SOL scores, particularly in math. She is another principal who has worked at Central Office prior to assuming responsibilities as a principal. I’ve been struck by how many principals at the county have been nurtured from within the system. Many of the principals that I’ve spoken with have been teachers, instructional coaches, and assistant principals before taking on head leadership in a school. This means that most of the principals have a decade plus experience in the county, and have a solidarity with central office and the superintendent. Many of the principals have spoken of the support that they feel in their ability to make autonomous decisions in support of the well-being of their school.