Albemarle School Board plans for high school redesign at retreat

The Albemarle County School Board devoted the entirety of its annual retreat on Friday to planning for innovative high school programs that will begin in August.

Albemarle launched its High School 2022 initiative two years ago to plan for the implementation of student-designed, interdisciplinary and community-based learning experiences throughout the division. 

High School 2022 was in part a response to new requirements outlined in the Virginia Department of Education’s “Profile of a Graduate.” It also was presented as a way to plan for future high school facilities. 

In December, the School Board voted to pursue the phased construction of satellite centers to facilitate high school students’ independent projects and internships at local businesses. A small pilot of this concept, called Albemarle Tech, will open in the Seminole Place industrial facility in August.

Another component of High School 2022 is a freshman seminar that will be required for students beginning ninth grade this fall. 

Debora Collins, Albemarle’s assistant superintendent for student learning, said the seminar will help students learn how to control their emotions, set goals, build relationships and make responsible decisions. 

“The big ideas are about self-discovery,” said Collins, who will become the division’s deputy superintendent on July 1. “We want students to know who they are, what they are interested in and how they might find out about that.”

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Albemarle’s high school redesign plans hit a potential roadblock this week when the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors declined the School Board’s request to put $96 million for school improvement projects in a potential bond referendum this November. 

The supervisors maintained their support for a $59 million bond referendum, with $47 million dedicated to projects identified by the School Board and $12 million to other local government projects. 

The county’s high school facilities planning study in 2017 recommended building a 600-student high school center for an estimated $35.1 million and spending $46.9 million to modernize instructional spaces at existing high schools. 

“At some point, we are either going to have to persuade the community and the Board of Supervisors [to fund the projects] or give up on this plan,” said School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff. “I’m not sure if I would have voted for the centers if I knew we wouldn’t modernize the high schools.”

Friday’s retreat took place at Piedmont Virginia Community College and began with a brief speech by Edward D. Hess, a professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. 

Hess advises businesses and governments seeking to prepare for economic disruptions caused by artificial intelligence. He believes that ‘the singularity’ — the theoretical moment when computers will be able to do all cognitive tasks that humans can — could happen in just 35 years. 

“The United States is the least prepared for this out of the world’s large, democratic economies,” Hess said. 

Hess said that people will soon only be able to find work and add value to businesses if they can do things that computers can’t. He said Albemarle’s school system will play a critical role in preparing for this future at the local level.

“You have done the brainstorming; you know what school of the future looks like,” Hess told the School Board. “The challenge at this point is scaling, and scaling quickly.”

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PVCC President Frank Friedman addressed the School Board and division administrators during their lunch break.

Friedman said PVCC gives many Albemarle County students the opportunity to transfer to the University of Virginia and other four-year universities, and it helps them to find good jobs. However, he said nearly half of these students leave the community college before earning any degree or certification.

Friedman said roughly a quarter of Albemarle County high school graduates at PVCC are relegated to remedial math courses. He attributed this to the state’s requirements for a standard diploma, which allow students to forgo math classes after 10th grade.

“If you don’t take math for two years, you have no chance when you get to college algebra,” Friedman said. “Those students are being set up to not succeed at the postsecondary level.”

Friedman said he was unsure if the county’s new vision for high school would solve this problem.

“It’s exciting to hear all about all the internships and project-based learning. … But I have never seen it work as the basis of teaching new skills and new knowledge,” Friedman said. “I have never seen an internship that can teach calculus.” 

Ira Socol, chief technology and innovation officer for the county schools, said teachers would help students learn the fundamentals of math and other subjects in the process of working on their projects.

“Project-based learning doesn’t mean students won’t be learning math,” Socol said. “I think it’s a question of how we build this in through the process.”

Friedman said PVCC was interested in working with Albemarle and the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center to create pathways to good jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree — particularly those in health care. 

“We don’t have a pipeline out of high school for those [job] areas,” Friedman said. “Those are tremendous job opportunities, they are all in our community … and they are not going to be replaced by automation.” 

CATEC has launched a Healthcare & Medical Services Academy and an Information & Engineering Technology Academy. But Friedman said most students in PVCC’s health sciences programs are not recent CATEC students, but older adults. 

“The CATEC academy idea tried to map out answers to this but, to be honest, it’s not happening,” Friedman said. “We need to circle back and get all the players together to start looking at that again.”

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The School Board retreat was the last for Superintendent Pam Moran, who will retire June 30. She will be replaced by Deputy Superintendent Matt Haas. 

In her closing remarks, Moran voiced her desire for Albemarle County Public Schools to continue empowering and engaging students by letting them take ownership of their learning.

“Making students feel like their voice matters … is probably our greatest gift to them,” Moran said. “Their success is predicated upon them saying, ‘my voice matters, I know I have agency and I know I can make a difference.’”