Only 13 miles separate Greer and Red Hill, but they seem worlds apart. Both schools serve over 50% economically disadvantaged students, but while Red Hill serves fewer than 200 students, Greer has over 600. Greer has over 75% minority students. Red Hill is 78% white. Red Hill is thoroughly rural, Greer is situated snugly in the urban ring. For many families at either school, the elementary school just a baker’s dozen miles away might as well be a different world.
Greer sits on a large school acreage with Jouett Middle and Albemarle High Schools. From the parking lot, Greer doesn’t look huge, but navigating the interior can be like deciphering a maze. Greer’s wings and halls are described with continent labels, so students and parents can remember if they should go to Europe or Africa to get to the appropriate classroom. Even though traipsing through the halls as a visitor is confusing, when you are standing in one wing with one grade level, it can feel cozy and manageable. The fourth grade classrooms, for instance, all open into a shared space with a sink and small work area. It would be easy for the entire grade level to feel like one cohesive unit with that floor plan.
Despite an addition less than 3 years old, Greer is over capacity. Multiple redistricting plans have been suggested, but other schools in the urban ring are similarly crowded, and transferring students further out into the county to Murray or Broadus Wood would likely cause those schools to become over-capacity in just a year or two, and result in redistricting in another few short years. There do not seem to be any easy solutions to the county’s capacity issue.
Greer’s 2013 addition includes a beautiful art room, with high ceilings, and plenty of natural light. Similar to other schools, Greer’s new addition incorporates inner courtyards which allow students to have ready access to outdoor classrooms. The new art room opens out onto a concrete slab, adjoined with grass and mulch. Contained by exterior walls of the various wings and viewable through windows, teachers can allow students flexible use of this interior/exterior space.
As I wrote in my Jouett post, Greer serves many students who were relocated with their families to the Charlottesville area by the International Rescue Committee. 33% of Greer’s students are English Language Learners. Because of the large number of ELL student, there is no way that Greer could have separate ELL classrooms. English Language Learners are in mainstream classrooms and ELL teachers push into classes and occasionally pull students out for one on one and small group instruction.
Of the schools I have visited Greer seems the most full (granted I visited a goodly number before school was in session). In every hallway there were tiny to mid-sized, adorable humans on their way to some class or activity. The cafeteria was full of humans of every hue eating in harmony. Hallways were filled with books and workstations. It felt like every inch of the building was a hive of activity.
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.
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.
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 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.