Albemarle School Board member Steve Koleszar

The “high school of the future” may not be what the Albemarle County School Board previously had in mind. It also might be built within school buildings that already exist.

The concept — which surfaced almost two years ago as a conversation focused on facility needs — has evolved into discussion about transforming how and what the schools teach.

“I do think we’ve reached a consensus that it’s not about the building, it’s about what we do,” said Steve Koleszar, a 20-year member of the School Board.

Initial conversations about a new high school included ideas such as increased amounts of online classes, internships and a building with no athletic fields designed to serve 600 to 800 students at a time, rather than the more than 1,000 students traditional comprehensive high schools serve.

“When we first talked about the high school of the future, we wanted to create a school climate where we could factor in all these things that we were talking about at the time,” said School Board member Jason Buyaki, saying that the board shouldn’t have started the discussion focused on the structure.

“In hindsight … it should have been curriculum and our method of instruction for the future, and that in turn trickles down to all your buildings and it redefines what you want to do,” Buyaki said.

As the division prepares for an upcoming redistricting to alleviate overcrowding at Albemarle High School and Greer Elementary School, school officials already have said a new $60 million comprehensive high school is not under consideration.

Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, said one of the driving factors behind the new approach and its evolution is the division’s 12 lifelong learner competencies — a set of characteristics the division wants all of its students to embody.

According to the division’s website, the goal of the competencies is to ensure that students “learn beyond the simple recall of facts; understand the connections to and implications of what they learn; retain what they learn; and be able to apply what they learn in new contexts.”

“When you talk about kids being able to communicate ideas, defend arguments, use multiple forms of media, plan and conduct research, you don’t see those sorts of things embedded in the state Standards of Learning or in the state tests,” Moran said.

“That is our goal, so what are the pedagogies, the curriculum and the performance-based assessments that we need to do to really make sure that kids are getting experiences … they need in order to accomplish those competencies?” she asked.

“If you’re in a classroom where the teacher is standing at the front of the room lecturing for 90 minutes, you’re not planning and conducting research, you’re listening to somebody talk about somebody else’s research,” Moran said.

As notions of the high school of the future change, the School Board’s chairman, Ned Gallaway, encouraged board members not to focus their thinking only on the division’s oldest students.

“It’s not just the high school level,” Gallaway said. “It’s a broader conceptual issue that this has turned into.”

School Board member Kate Acuff agreed.

“I don’t think that you can have the high school of the future if you don’t have kindergarten through eight of the future, or pre-K through eight,” Acuff said.

Because the board wants to modernize learning spaces to better reflect the work environments students will enter, School Board member Jon Stokes suggested that virtual learning play an increased role in the division’s future.

Similarly, Moran said a pedagogical shift is necessary to prepare students for future jobs.

“How is it that we’re preparing kids for an economy that is in rapid change mode?” Moran asked. “We’re going to wipe a lot of people out of jobs if we don’t educate them differently for very different kinds of jobs in the future.”

“We’ve got to think in a different manner in order to deliver these opportunities to students,” Buyaki said.

After an October meeting in which the board learned that teachers and students wanted and needed more instructional time to devote to creative teaching and learning, the board last winter received feedback from a steering committee designed to provide ideas about how the high schools could innovate in the areas of both teaching and learning.

The most significant recommendation — piloted this year — allowed teachers to replace traditional final exams with longer, end-of-year assignments that required students to conduct research and demonstrate learning, Moran said.

“We had a significant number of teachers who chose to do that,” Moran said.

Division staff members are now working to implement a similar program in the middle schools, the superintendent said.

As the frame of the conversation has changed, moving forward, school officials said they will continue trying to articulate the division’s needs and to clarify the vision to achieve this new goal.