When Albemarle County schools open on Wednesday, 21 students will begin a year of school unlike any they have experienced before.
Albemarle Tech: The Center for Creativity and Invention is a new student center housed in 42,000 square feet of leased space in the former Comdial building in Seminole Place. Students will spend part of their week at the center working on projects tailored to their personal interests.
“We recognize that a lot of juniors and seniors have a defined direction in life, so we are opening up doors for students interested in something specific,” said Jeff Prillaman, chief planner for Albemarle’s specialty centers. “The problems of the world are not going to be solved by a kid who can only devote 90 minutes to that problem every other day.”
Albemarle Tech is centered around a large common space designed for collaborative work. This space is surrounded by studios outfitted with various creative technologies, including virtual reality, drones and software for film production and video game design and music.
Students at Albemarle Tech will work with teachers to design a personal learning plan and draft a contract detailing the work they will do to earn academic credit. They will be able to earn credits in multiple subjects through interdisciplinary projects.
“We will help them explore things they are interested in while meeting the state’s graduation requirements,” Prillaman said.
The Albemarle Tech space was built out over the summer once the county Planning Commission approved the project in May. The facility received its state certificate of occupancy last week.
“We have spent the last three months really working on developing the space,” said David Glover, the lead teacher for Albemarle Tech. “It was a long-term project that was done in a very short amount of time.”
“The beginning of the year is all about building relationships and getting to know your students,” Glover added. “We have the space, tools and equipment. The first couple of weeks will be about identifying students’ interests and passions.”
Albemarle Tech is a pilot of the county schools’ long-term strategy to address the division’s enrollment capacity needs and provide equitable access to specialized academic programs.
Two years ago, Albemarle launched the High School 2022 initiative to generate ideas for expanding student-designed, interdisciplinary and community-based learning experiences. The division hired HBA Architecture & Interior Design and subcontractor Fielding Nair International to complete a high-school facilities planning study in 2017.
In December, the School Board accepted the consultants’ recommendation to construct multiple satellite centers devoted to project-based learning and work experiences for high school students.
The School Board’s five-year capital improvement program request includes $35.1 million for a 600-student high school center that would open for the 2021-22 school year and $9.8 million for a 200-student center that would open in 2024.
In May, the School Board withdrew its request for a $96 million bond referendum to fund the construction of the centers and modernize the county’s existing high schools after the Board of Supervisors refused to include more than $47 million for school projects in the referendum.
“Building [the center model] as we do it gives us the flexibility to do it right,” School Board member Steve Koleszar said. “We can know that it works before we commit more than $30 million to it.”
Seminole Place was chosen as the site of Albemarle Tech in part for its potential to facilitate internships at local businesses. Seminole Place is home to an array of light manufacturing firms, including Custom Ink, MIKRO Systems and AgroSpheres.
Albemarle Tech also provides space and resources for the school division’s administrative staff. The leased space includes offices for 30 employees in the school division’s department of learning engineering, access and design, commonly known as LEAD. Other areas will be used for professional development sessions for other employees.
Students at Albemarle Tech will be able to work alongside LEAD staff at the center. For several years, the department has employed student interns to work on student laptops.
Albemarle Tech currently enrolls 21 high school seniors, with several others expected to join later in the year. Glover said that all but one of the students will be able drive themselves to the center and to internships at other locations.
“Having students who could drive was a key component for this first year,” Glover said.
So far, only a quarter of Albemarle Tech students are female. Prillaman said he hoped the gender ratio will become more balanced over the next few years as the program expands to its maximum enrollment of 150 students.
The School Board has budgeted $687,488 for Albemarle Tech’s first year of operation.
Some of the students in Albemarle Tech’s inaugural class attended Monday’s open house event.
Joe Rifkin and Dylan Shifflett, classmates at Albemarle High School, hope to work together on film projects at Albemarle Tech. They plan to spend half of their school days at the center this year.
“This space was meant to encourage us to work on art and get real-world experience,” Shifflett said.
“I was never into traditional learning, like memorizing math equations,” Rifkin said. “I wanted school to be somewhere I could sit down and work on something I cared about.”
Shaun Wood, a senior at Monticello High School, said he would like to work on virtual reality projects related to literature and other core academic subjects.
“My main goal is to make sure this program gets a good rep; that students see this is as something awesome,” Wood said.
Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.