Charlottesville City Schools hired VMDO Architects in Fall 2016 to study school capacity and enrollment trends, and make recommendations for school improvements and modernization projects. From left: Rosa Atkins, Sherry Kraft, Ned Michie. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

At a Tuesday work session, the Charlottesville City School Board was supportive of reconfiguring middle school grades, building a centralized preschool facility, and expanding several elementary schools to accommodate the growth of its student population over the next decade. 

Charlottesville City Schools hired VMDO Architects in 2016 to study school capacity and enrollment trends, and to give recommendations for improvements and modernization projects for each school. 

The first volume of VMDO’s study, completed in June, showed enrollment at five of the city’s six elementary schools had already exceeded their functional capacities — or 85 percent of an elementary school building’s maximum capacity. Jackson-Via Elementary is the only elementary school with substantial room for more students. 

VMDO partnered with Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service to make enrollment projections based on population growth and development trends in Charlottesville.

In 2011, kindergarten enrollment was equal to only two-thirds the number of births recorded in Charlottesville five years prior. By 2016, that ratio had increased to nearly 80 percent. 

“Charlottesville is retaining more families, and we are seeing larger kindergarten classes,” Lombard said. 

Charlottesville’s elementary school enrollment grew by an average of 3 percent per year between 2011 and 2016. VMDO projected that this rate of growth will slow down in subsequent years. 

VMDO forecasted the city schools’ Pre-K through 12th grade enrollment to grow from 4,273 students to 5,190 by 2026 —  678 more than its existing facilities can adequately host. To accommodate that growth, the school division would need to build at least 36 new classrooms.       

Walker Upper Elementary’s enrollment exceeded the school’s functional capacity this year, and Buford Middle School is projected to do so by the 2019-2020 school year. Enrollment at Charlottesville High School is projected to surpass its functional capacity by 2022-2023. 

On Tuesday, VMDO principal Ken Thacker presented an array of options for increasing school capacity, which centered on the potential reconfiguration of grades in the city’s middle schools. 

Walker Upper Elementary currently hosts all of the division’s 5th- and 6th-graders, while Buford enrolls all of its 7th- and 8th-graders.

To preserve the existing grade configuration, VMDO recommended additions to Walker and Buford that would result in a combined net gain of 18 classrooms at those schools. VMDO proposed demolishing 10 undersized classrooms at Buford to make room for 17 new, full-size classrooms.

Thacker said Buford principal Eric Johnson would prefer for the school to host at least three grades. He said Buford has some trouble engaging parents because their children already have “one foot out the door” to Charlottesville High School upon their arrival.

VMDO presented construction scenarios for expanding Buford to include students in 5th through 8th grade, or 6th through 8th grade.

The 5th-through-8th grade campus would be designed to accommodate about 1,400 students and would cost between $65 million and $85 million to build. 

A 6th-through-8th grade campus could comfortably host about 1,050 students, and would cost $45 million to $60 million. In this scenario, fifth grade would be moved back to the city’s elementary schools and the Walker Upper Elementary building could be repurposed, potentially as a preschool facility. 

Thacker noted that the Buford site already includes two large buildings in addition to the school: the Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center and the Cherry Avenue Boys and Girls Club. 

“I think [the 6th-through-8th grade] scenario is more believable,” said Thacker. “The idea of putting 1,500 students on this site is a little far-fetched.”

Thacker said building additions at all six elementary schools could pose problems. The larger student bodies of these schools would place added strain on gyms, cafeterias and other core facilities if they were not expanded at the same time, he said. Construction on the additions would also be disruptive to school activities, he said. 

VMDO also proposed building a new three-story elementary school next to Walker Upper Elementary. Constructing a new school, Thacker said, would cost much less than adding on to six elementary schools.

“The economies of scale are quite drastic,” he said. 

The total cost of building a new elementary school was estimated at $20 million to $25 million, while dispersed additions to existing schools would cost $40 million to $50 million.

Board member Adam Hastings said choosing the location of a new elementary school would be “a big political challenge.”

“I don’t want the new school to be where all the privileged kids get to go,” said Board member Jennifer McKeever.

Multiple School Board members voiced support for creating a centralized Pre-K facility large enough to accommodate about 250 children.

Thacker said the preschool facility would have enough impact on school capacity to end overcrowding at all of the city’s elementary schools if it had opened this year. 

However, McKeever said she was unsure if the centralized preschool facility would be the best use of the city’s resources.

“I feel like a centralized preschool does not enhance our current learning environment if we don’t modernize our elementary schools,” she said.

VMDO recommended adding 10 classrooms to Charlottesville High School by 2023 as a final step to address the division’s capacity needs. The cost of the addition is estimated at $15 million to $20 million. 

“We’ve got other fish to fry before [CHS],” Thacker said. “CHS appears to be the school that can sustain ongoing growth for the longest amount of time.”

VMDO presented the School Board with nine school construction scenarios ranging from $80 million to $155 million. Multiple School Board members were in favor of investigating another option: building large additions to two or three of the city’s elementary schools, instead of smaller ones at all six schools or creating a new school. 

Chairman Juandiego Wade said the School Board will discuss the scenarios further at a work session in October and hold community meetings to get input from the public. 

“I don’t see us being able to get [a decision] to City Council before January. I really don’t,” said Board member Leah Puryear. “You need to have community input. We need an opportunity to look at this and talk some more.” 


Josh Mandell

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.