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.

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