The Albemarle County Planning Commission on Tuesday cleared the way for the county school division to open a high school student center in the Seminole Place industrial facility.
In December, the Albemarle County School Board voted to pursue the phased construction of satellite centers to expand the county’s high school enrollment capacity. Students would go to the centers for independent projects and work experiences, while taking other courses and participating in extracurricular activities at their base high schools.
The School Board’s adopted budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes $687,488 to start a proof-of-concept pilot of the center model in leased space.
Albemarle County Public Schools has negotiated a seven-year lease of 42,000 square feet at 1180 Seminole Trail to accommodate the Center for Creativity and Invention, or “Albemarle Tech.” The pilot center is expected to open this August.
Albemarle launched the High School 2022 initiative two years ago to expand student-designed, interdisciplinary and community-based learning experiences throughout the school division.
“We thought it was important to begin this process with… a smaller test bed of the platform,” said Ira Socol, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for the county schools.
“We can begin to understand what issues will arise and how to solve them; how to work with students every day, and how to move students around this very large county.”
The Planning Commission voted, 6-0, to approve an Application for Comprehensive Plan Compliance that will allow the county school division to lease the site for a public use.
“The commission’s action is only related to the appropriateness of the site, not an action or recommendation on whether the facility should be funded or constructed,” said commissioner Tim Keller.
The leased portion of Seminole Place also would include professional development space for up to 150 people and offices for 30 employees in the school division’s department of Learning Engineering, Access and Design (LEAD).
“We have built in mentorships and built-in work opportunities with our team [at LEAD],” Socol said.
Albemarle Tech will host 20 to 40 high school seniors for the 2018-2019 school year, and would be open to other grades in future years. Its enrollment has been capped at 150 students.
Socol said the owners of Seminole Place had no plans to designate parking spaces for Albemarle Tech students and staff. However, he said the facility would rarely, if ever reach its maximum occupancy of 330 people simultaneously.
Socol said shuttle buses provided by the school division could reduce the parking needs of Albemarle Tech. Next year Albemarle County will also offer students bus transportation to specialized STEM academies not located at their base high school.
Socol said Albemarle Tech could potentially place high school student interns at dozens of businesses located at Seminole Place. Current tenants of the facility include MIKRO Systems, Custom Ink, and AgroSpheres.
Reason Beer, the first craft brewery in Albemarle’s urban ring, is another new tenant of Seminole Place. Socol said he didn’t expect the brewery to interfere with the operations of the student center— and that Albemarle Tech students were unlikely to intern there.
“I don’t think that we want to leave our students out of what is one of the county’s greatest growth industries, but it’s something that we have to be very careful about moving toward and into,” Socol said. “I don’t think that Albemarle Tech is the place that is going to do this.”
Planning commissioner Daphne Spain asked Socol how Albemarle Tech would compliment existing vocational programs at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center.
“CATEC has a specific focus on certain kinds of work opportunities, and even certain types of computer networking,” Socol said. “What we are trying to build is something with a whole group of other options… from students who really want to pull and slice cable, to students who want to do the highest level of [computer] programming.”
Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, said in a public comment that Albemarle Tech would occupy a piece of Albemarle County’s limited inventory of land zoned for light industrial uses.
“While albeit this land is being utilized in a cut and paste fashion right now… I’ve heard members of this group raise that as concern in rezoning matters,” Williamson said.
Tim Keller said Albemarle Tech would have a net positive impact on economic development in the county.
“In creating internship opportunities, we are actually expanding our workforce capabilities and the types of folks in the economic world who will be coming into our community,” Keller said.
Socol said Albemarle County Public Schools hoped to hire a full-time internship coordinator for students through a partnership with the county’s Economic Development Office.
Keller said he preferred the high school center model to building a new comprehensive high school in Northern Albemarle County. He said a new high school and subsequent redistricting could further segregate the community along racial and socioeconomic lines.
“I would hope that this center would have a more integrated approach to the selection of students,” Keller said.
Socol said he hoped Albemarle’s high school centers would eventually be open to all interested students. “We are going to take in pretty much all the students who say they want to come, unless we see big red flags showing that this is not the right kind of learning for them,” Socol said.
Albemarle’s Capital Improvement Program for fiscal 2019-2023 currently includes $35.1 million to construct a 90,000 square-foot center that could accommodate up to 600 high school students by 2021.
On Wednesday, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors agreed to issue up to $59 million in debt through a bond referendum in November to finance the 600-student high school center and other school and community capital projects.
On May 24, the School Board is scheduled to decide whether to request a bond referendum for this year’s general election.