Elise Martin feels more like herself at Center I.
Martin, a sophomore at Albemarle High School, spends half her time in a space unlike traditional high school classrooms. Center I looks more like a new-age tech workspace fit for a budding startup — just a mile from the high school — where she practices video game design.
“It’s an entire space and to be surrounded with people of similar interests — it really allows for that deep dive,” Martin said. “It’s nice to have that community.”
Now, Albemarle schools are working to open their second center. Center I serves up to 250 students, and at the July 13 school board meeting, the public heard more about the planned Center II that is expected to accommodate 400 students by 2026.
Here’s how Center I works: It is not a stand-alone institution like Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center (CATEC) or the county’s three high schools. The Center offers spaces for students to explore coursework similar to CATEC’s, such as engineering, hospitality and information technology, without having to enroll in the technical school. The county provides transportation for students to go to and from the center and their respective high schools. They spend two to three days per week exploring various career pathways, such as media relations and computer programming, in addition to their core classes.
The centers were created to supplement students’ education at their high schools and CATEC. The centers are also a way for all students to have access to internships and apprenticeships that can lead them into post-secondary work and education opportunities. Local businesses have also expressed interest in mentoring and collaborating with students in areas such as law and social services.
County schools surveyed students in their five middle schools and Community Lab school and found that they were interested in spaces to learn about design and hospitality careers.
More about pathways to learn
Albemarle County Public Schools is collaborating with Fielding Nair International, a global educational facility planning firm, and the county to find a way to implement the strategic plan the board adopted in 2017. The board considered building a $90 million high school in addition to the first center, which opened in 2018, but instead elected to build a second center to meet education demands.
“We didn’t want to build a new gleaming, 21st century $150 to $200 million high school and not do anything to the other schools,” said school board member Kate Acuff at the July 13 meeting. “We still need to do other things to our current schools. “
The county school system plans to locate the new center near the Lambs Lane Campus, which houses Albemarle High School, Journey Middle School, Greer Elementary School, Ivy Creek School and other division buildings. Early plans by Quinn Evans Architects include open co-working spaces, a café and an outdoor project space. The firm says it will begin the bidding process — where the district receives bids from construction companies for the work — by Sept. 2024 and start construction shortly after.
Recently, Charlottesville City Schools made a swift decision to buy CATEC for $5.5 million and is working to transition the school, its workers, and students to the City school’s systems. City School’s acquisition of CATEC doesn’t impact the plans for the centers, said Phil Giaramita, spokesperson for county schools.
“The plans for the center were in place before we made the bid to purchase CATEC,” said Giaramita. “So there’s no difference there.”
Students at Center I work at their own pace, said Martin. They choose what project they want to work on and how they want to be graded. The design of the program allows students breathing room to explore their interests without the pressure of being consistently graded. Seniors can design their own Senior Capstone Project, a long-form final project, and choose whether or not they want to earn high school credit, professional credentials or experience.
Students also incorporate what they learn in the centers into their core classes. For instance, Martin used her video game knowledge in her English class. She created a video game for one of her assignments.
“My last few years of, like, school, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to be creative,” said Martin. “But here you have the ability to do what you want to do.”
The construction of the centers also addresses an expected increase in demand for Albemarle High School, which served 1,998 students in the 2022-2023 school year, and Western Albemarle High School, which taught 1,163 students last year. Monticello High School, which served 1,235 students last year, is also expecting to see a rise in population. Each school is expected to enroll an additional 200 students by the 2027-2028 school year.
At first, Albemarle schools entertained the idea of adding an additional high school, but decided that the centers will better serve students’ educational needs, said Giaramita.
“[The centers] would help a little bit with the capacity issues in some of the high schools,” said spokesperson Giaramita.
This year, Albemarle Schools is expected to spend $612,589 on lease payments for Center I, which also houses the Child Nutrition, Extended Day Enrichment programs and the division’s Department of Technology. Construction of Center II, planned for completion by the 2026-2027 school year, is expected to cost the county $36 million.