City approves $3M for planning, hiring of architectural firm

Students at Charlottesville City Schools go through several transitions as they advance from elementary to middle school because of the division’s middle school model.

This is a problem that school officials said they’re aiming to rectify.

Walker Upper Elementary School houses fifth and sixth grade. Buford Middle School houses seventh and eighth grade. The city approved $3 million for the planning and hiring of an architectural firm to reconfigure the buildings.

Under the plan, sixth grade will move to Buford and fifth grade will move down to the elementary schools. And then the Walker building will serve as a centralized preschool center, according to board member Sherry Kraft.

The division’s preschool programs are currently scattered across the elementary schools, with some buildings housing 3-year-olds and some housing 4-year-olds. With a central building, all preschool children will be under one roof, offering wraparound services, like a health clinic and counseling, officials said.

Kraft said the current configuration of city schools was borne out of residential segregation in the city.

“It was done this way to try to make sure that by the time kids got to fifth grade that they will all be getting the same education — no matter what part of town they lived in,” Kraft said. “… It was created so that all children could receive the same education but then realized with all these transitions, it’s not beneficial. … Kids need stability because of everything that they’re going through in early adolescence.”

Superintendent Rosa Atkins agreed that the reconfiguration would lead to more stability, saying that it’s “important to build strong relationships, not only to one another but with the adults in the environment.”

IMG_9887

Sixth grade will move to Buford Middle School.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

It was created so that all children could receive the same education but then realized with all these transitions, it’s not beneficial. … Kids need stability because of everything that they’re going through in early adolescence.

Sherry Kraft Charlottesville City Schools Board Member

Michael Goddard, project manager of facility development for Charlottesville, updated board members on the project recently at a meeting. He said he’ll start writing a request for proposal on the first day of school, Aug. 21, that will call for qualified architects interested in making a proposal for their services for the project. The plan is to hire a firm by February.

The division needed the money because the design process — especially of a project this large — is not something anyone at the city is qualified to handle, Goddard said. The cost estimate for construction is expected by January 2021, but the school division anticipates needing nearly $60 million to complete the Walker-Buford project.

“There are parts of this project that will take longer than we anticipate,” Goddard said.

As the project launches, the architect will help answer questions such as how to adjust the Buford building to take another grade level that would lead to a 50% increase in its student body.

“There’s a question: ‘Should we keep Buford and make adjustments to that building, or should we start fresh and build a new school?’” Goddard said. “That’s part of the planning. We also have to do some planning around the capacity of those grade levels, like how many students we’re [going] to be moving to the new school and how many we’ll be pushing back to the [elementary schools].”

Goddard said he wouldn’t want the schools to close because it’s helpful for the project to keep the facilities running, stressing there would be many logistical and cost issues associated with the closing of the schools, like needing a temporary facility.

“If we decide to keep Buford as-is and add to it, how do we construct that without making the students move out?” he said. “And if we can’t keep Buford how it is, we’ll have to build a brand-new school. Where will the students go while these constructions are going on?”

Complicating the work is the design of the 60-year-old school.

“The campus layout is not what we would prefer these days because it’s kind of an open campus,” Goddard said. “It has security problems.”

Reconfiguring Walker is more workable, but Goddard said it will still need some adjustments, like lowering countertop heights to accommodate preschool children.

Buford is a very old school. It needs repair. There are areas that really need attention in the school. We are at a point now that renovating that school is almost unavoidable.

Rosa Atkins Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent

Atkins said the division began talking about the reconfiguration nearly a decade ago. As the nation was amid an economic downturn, the city couldn’t afford allocating a large amount of money to the schools.

Year after year, the project had to be put on the back burner, Atkins added.

“Buford is a very old school,” Atkins said. “It needs repair. There are areas that really need attention in the school. We are at a point now that renovating that school is almost unavoidable.”

IMG_9820

City Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins talked about the division's gifted program, Quest, during a council meeting.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow