As Albemarle grows, and its demographics change, one of the county division’s elementary schools is taking an “all hands on deck” approach to respond to the resulting and ever-fluctuating student needs.
Already one of Albemarle’s larger elementary schools, with an enrollment of 607, a significant number of students at Greer Elementary deal with issues such as transience, English as a Second or Other Language and homelessness.
But Robyn Bolling, Greer’s principal, has employed the motto “we are crew” to motivate her staff and create a culture of flexibility and commitment in the school.
“What needs to be done, we do,” Bolling said. “It’s part of us, and it’s what we expect.”
Greer is a Title I school with almost 80 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. What’s more, a large number of students either enter or leave the school mid-year.
Last year, about 85 students left at some point during the year, while about 125 new students arrived after the first day of school.
In addition to the churning over of students throughout the year, growing numbers of those students are refugees placed in Albemarle by the International Rescue Committee, and students for whom English is not their first language.
“We have kids who were born and raised in refugee camps,” Bolling said, noting that often these students need weeks or months to acclimate to their new lives.
Last year Greer taught 43 refugee students, representing 30 languages. 226 students, or 37 percent of the school body, were English language learners, and 32 of those children entered the school after the year had started and the staffing schedule had been set.
“It’s well more than a class, and with that the budget has already been exhausted, so we have to absorb it,” Bolling said.
Additionally, 34 students were homeless, and another 42 families lived in shared housing last year.
Because many of these children have either received little education, are learning a new language for the first time or are simply under stress due to constant moving, Bolling said that intervention and remediation services are in high demand, and that the diverse student needs impact many aspects of the school, from scheduling to parent communication to classroom community.
“Even with our projections, it’s hard for me to predict how many classes I’ll need at each grade level,” Bolling said.
The lack of professional development around ESOL instruction also is an issue, she said.
“Most professional development in our division is for most teachers,” Bolling said. “But in some of our schools … if you’re a teacher and you have a fifth-grader who is learning his ABCs and you’re trying to press on with fifth grade curriculum, how are you going to meet him in science, social studies and math?”
“How can we all become ESOL teachers here?” Bolling said.
Dorothy Spencer, who has been an office associate at Greer for nine years, also has watched the school change.
“Just the workload of going from 420 students to more than 600 is a lot,” Spencer said, citing recent enrollment growth and a building expansion.
Spencer said she frequently has to find translators for families, process the numerous enrollments and withdrawals and help families make appointments with other local services.
But Bolling is quick to say that she and her team aren’t dealing with “issues” or “problems,” rather that the situations many of her families are in are simply part of the community the school serves.
“There is a unique thing going on here … and it can be a challenge in some ways, and yet embracing that challenge is what the story is about,” Bolling said.
The first thing Greer’s principal keeps in mind is hiring teachers who reflect the diversity of her student body.
Additionally, Greer staff consistently monitor how new students are adapting and growing.
“Rarely does a week go by where I don’t have to have a conversation with a teacher or an entire grade level to strategize around this,” Bolling said, noting that the staff is more than willing to shuffle the school’s resources based on ever-changing student needs.
And the effort is paying off. While last year Greer failed to make accreditation — Virginia’s accountability system — and Annual Measurable Objectives — the federal accountability system — pass rates on Standards of Learning tests among ESOL and economically disadvantaged students are on the rise, as are third-grade math scores.
Bolling said the information she’s analyzing is preliminary data from the Virginia Department of Education and is not yet public.
Moving forward, Bolling said that anticipating a shifting student body is something her staff is equipped to deal with.
“I want us to be mindful of our population, and we all embrace this, but we also need to be smart and plan so we’re not reacting,” she said. “We need to be proactive.”