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Albemarle schools: learning spaces matter
20140814-Agnor Hurt New Bus Driveway
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Recent construction at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School added a new bus driveway.
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by Tim Shea | Friday, August 15, 2014 at 11:09 a.m.

The Albemarle School Board Thursday received more information on a proposed $67.8 million classroom upgrade scheme.

The work, which is being presented as the School Board considers its recommendations for next year’s Capital Improvement Plan, is being called a “learning spaces modernization” project.

The CIP is shared jointly between the school division and County government, and serves as a planning document that is revised each year. It estimates costs in one year increments over a decade. The proposed CIP totals about $120 million in the first five years, with $11.5 million for FY15.

“This looks like a large number, but when you spread it over 10 years and 25 schools, this is a very conservative number,” said Pam Moran, Albemarle’s superintendent.

The reason for the effort, Schools officials say, is a need for classroom spaces to keep pace with the type of instruction Albemarle expects from its teachers. One School Board priority is to “Integrate the use of contemporary learning spaces and supportive technologies into the instructional program delivery.”

A recent evaluation of school facilities showed that only 1 percent of elementary and 3 percent of middle and high school students had access to seating that promotes movement, and that there is currently no mechanism for “large-scale” furniture replacement.

Additionally, about 90 classrooms throughout the divisions receive no natural light. Furthermore, Rosalyn Schmitt, a building services project manager, said that the division’s buildings are suffering from a “deficiency” of electrical outlets.

“Spaces matter, they affect the students’ health, mood and learning,” Schmitt said, noting that the average school facility was built in 1970. “Our buildings are very well maintained…but we haven’t had the focus or funding mechanism to address our learning spaces.”

Debbie Collins, Albemarle’s executive director of K-12 education, agreed and said students respond to the modifications.

“As we’re changing our learning spaces, the students are becoming more engaged,” Collins said.

Bob Moje, principal of VMDO Architects—a firm specializing in school design—underscored the importance of a school’s physical environment.

“The vast majority of physical space in our educational infrastructure is based on a factory model, and it’s not appropriate for the kind of future we need to prepare our students for,” Moje said. “It’s like teaching kids to ride horses and wagons when we have automobiles outside.”

“If you look at work and home today, nothing looks like a classroom,” Moje added. “People work from many places…students learn at different rates and need to learn in groups of three, five and eight, its fluid.”

Within the nearly $70 million for modernizations is about $11.7 million for new classroom furniture, and about $36 million for modernizations, which would update classroom finishes, textures and lighting, as well as improve visibility into classrooms while connecting learning spaces to each other to provide more flexibility.

But School Board members did not take staff’s presentation without questions.

School Board member Steve Kolesar supports the project’s general direction, but said he’d like the implementation of any work to be measurable.

“As we go into this project, I’d like us to identify some of the learning outcomes, and then we can evaluate why we’re getting those outcomes or not getting those outcomes,” Koleszar said.

Part of the project would modernize classrooms to connect to other learning spaces, such as outdoor gardens, hallways and other classrooms. Adding additional doors triggered concern in School Board member Kate Acuff.

”We’re securing the fronts doors, but then we’re talking about having more access to the outdoors,” Acuff said.

Moran said that Albemarle High School has over 70 doors that are always locked from the outside, and that teachers have systems in place to ensure student safety.

School Board member Barbara Massie Mouly questioned the accuracy of the project’s cost, and asked if staff incorporated inflation into their figures.

Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer, said the plan isn’t using inflation because they believe they’ll be able to mitigate some of the costs in the out years. For example, Tistadt said, LED lighting is expecting to drop in price in the coming years.

School Board member Pam Moynihan said she supports contemporary learning spaces, but wondered if the approach could be improved.

“Maybe we should look at the most important things to do at each school first and do those to lay the base work,” Moynihan said. “We have to look at what we can do so we can have some parity.”

In June, the Long Range Planning Advisory Committee said the school division’s buildings will require about $212 million in work over the next 10 years.

Ranking the division’s needs, the Committee listed general maintenance, technology upgrades, school bus replacements and security improvements as priority projects.

Other top-ranking projects included proposed modernizations or additions at Red Hill, Stony Point, Woodbrook, Yancey and Scottsville elementary schools.

As a division, Albemarle is also nearing capacity in many schools.

Much of Albemarle’s growth is in the northern part of the county. Eight of northern Albemarle’s 11 schools have exceeded capacity or are expected to in the coming years. Albemarle High School is 35 students over capacity, and in recent years the School Board has said the school should not be expanded again.

To address this the Committee recommended a division-wide redistricting.

The School Board will vote on its CIP August 28.

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