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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.

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School

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.

Woodbrook Elementary School

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.

Encouraging Personal Growth through Scavenger Hunts

Building Experiences is holding a Youth Conference in January and we’re hashing out the structure of the weekend. One student has been vociferously requesting a scavenger hunt so I’ve been trying to figure out an authentic way to include her request in the weekend’s agenda. The scavenger hunt is still in development, but here are some creative ways that I’ve been thinking about modifying the structure:

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