The Albemarle County school system is a semifinalist for a $10 million grant aimed at reworking the traditional public high school experience.
If the application is successful, the division will have $2 million a year for five years to give some county students the option to design their own path through high school.
The grant is through the XQ Super School Project, a $50 million plan initiated by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of famed Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The grant’s mission, its website says, is to cause a “sea change” in the way America thinks about education.
Five school divisions nationwide eventually will receive $10 million grants. The winners will be announced in August.
For the county schools, that means pushing toward a model that gives students more choice in how they meet traditional high school benchmarks.
Students still would be required to pass state Standards of Learning tests and pass the required number of credits to graduate, but they would not be forced to follow the traditional high school course load to do so.
“This is another option, this is another opportunity for students,” said Chad Ratliff, county schools’ director of instructional programming. “This is not something where we would ever say, ‘This is the right way.’ This is just another option that is just sorely lacking anywhere in the public education system.”
The schools envision a model where students are guided through their education by a team of teachers, mentors and advisers, rather than by following a traditional seven-period regimen of rote classes.
Though Ratliff sees a need for radical change in how high schools treat their students, the purpose of applying for the XQ grant is not to impose one curriculum model on every student.
“The piece that really is of interest to me is that schools should not be focused on creating cookie-cutter pathways, because different kids have different ways of thinking about what they like to do, what their interests are,” said Albemarle Schools Superintendent Pam Moran.
For Moran, the grant application is as much about driving new ideas within the schools as it is making distinct changes to the way students are taught.
“Every time we go through a process of creating a proposal for a grant … we refocus and reimagine what it is that we can do to accomplish the vision of the school division,” she said. “Whether we get the money or not, in the process of going through that reimagining, the division can really think about how can we better engage the students and prepare them for the workforce.”
A drastic change to the structure of high school will require teachers to be limber enough to move beyond simple lectures.
At the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, teachers who have switched from traditional lecture-based instruction to a more hands-on model are being brought in to share the experience with prospective teachers.
“We are trying to incorporate more teaching models, and we want our students thinking about how we practice what we preach,” said Jenny Chiu, an assistant professor at the Curry School.
Chiu compared the model with grade-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, where students often are asked to create or build something on their own, but must follow scientific and mathematic principles.
“You are giving students freedom to learn within this framework of science and math. I think that it is a way to facilitate these types of approaches in classrooms,” Chiu said.
The next step for the county schools is to present to XQ a fleshed-out model of how they would spend the grant money. That means everything from how a class schedule might look to a budget for each year of the project, Ratliff said.
The next deadline is May 23.
“It’s very fast and furious,” he said. “A broad network wrote and would execute this grant … My role in it was in a lot of ways facilitating the process.”
The division’s ultimate goal, Moran said, is to better prepare students for the world after high school.
“What I see with XQ is an opportunity for us to focus on how the workforce is changing, how tech is changing, how communities are changing,” she said. “At the same time, how would we envision a high school of the future … for kids that are walking into a world that really is changing?”