Yancey Elementary, founded in 1960, was named for Benjamin Franklin Yancey, an educator who established a school in the 1890s for African-Americans in Albemarle County. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

The country roads that wind through Esmont became even quieter when B. F. Yancey Elementary School closed last month.

Low scores on standardized tests for several years and uncertainty about federal funding for next year motivated the Albemarle County School Board’s 5-2 vote to consolidate Yancey into Red Hill and Scottsville elementary schools.

The educators leading the effort to turn around Yancey’s performance before it closed attribute many of the school’s shortcomings to its declining enrollment — a result of limited development and economic activity in this rural area of Southern Albemarle.

“[Esmont] is only 17 miles from Charlottesville, but it’s like a different world,” said Gail Lovette, assistant professor and director of school turnaround projects for the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education.

Curry was designated by Albemarle County Public Schools as the official turnaround partner for Yancey in the fall of 2015. The partnership was expected to bring professional development and tutors to Yancey for three years, but the school closed only 15 months after it was initiated.

“I think the plan was heading in the right direction … but keeping students at Yancey might have made them have to overcome additional disadvantages,” said former Yancey Principal Craig Dommer, now an assistant principal at Henley Middle School.

How small is too small?

Yancey enrolled 118 students in 2016-2017, down from 168 students in 2008. Only 108 students were expected to enroll this fall if the school had remained open.

“When enrollment gets that low … you start to lose the ability to provide equitable access to services,” Dommer said. “A lot of plans were made to overcome those numbers.”

Dommer said employing a part-time guidance counselor at Yancey cost the school division much more money per-student than a full-time counselor would at most of Albemarle’s elementary schools. He said the same inefficiencies could limit his students’ access to intervention specialists and gifted teachers.

These services were particularly important at Yancey, with more than 75 percent of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes.

“That is the struggle that the School Board had to think about,” Dommer said. “They had to make a high-level, big-picture decision.”

Debora Collins, Albemarle’s assistant superintendent for student learning, was Yancey’s principal from 2001 to 2004. She said Yancey’s enrollment during her tenure — about 150 students — was large enough to prevent some of the difficulties the school faced in its final years.

“[This year,] a grade level at Yancey could go from a 48 percent pass rate on the SOLs to a 40 percent pass rate with one child,” Collins said. “That complicates how quickly you can — or can’t — get to where you need to go. The work that you have to do just to stay where you are becomes greater.”

“It’s a high-pressure situation for students and teachers,” said Dommer. “If a student who is a sure pass [on the SOLs] leaves the school, it’s back to the drawing board.”

‘We struggled’

Yancey wasn’t considered a low-performing school until recently; in 2011, more than 95 percent of Yancey’s students passed the SOL tests for English and mathematics.

But Yancey, like most Virginia elementary schools, saw students’ SOL scores plummet after more rigorous tests were introduced in 2012 and 2013.

In 2013, only 42 percent of Yancey students passed the math SOL, while 48 percent passed the English test.

Dommer was hired as Yancey’s principal in 2012, while these changes to the SOLs were taking effect.

“We struggled. There’s no way of getting around that,” he said.

While most of Albemarle’s schools were able to bring their SOL scores back up in the next year or two, Yancey’s remained below the benchmarks for state accreditation.

Dommer said Virginia’s process for school reconstitution is “slow to move.” Yancey was identified by the Virginia Department of Education as a priority school in the fall of 2014, but it took another year for the VDOE and the county school division to finalize its turnaround plan.

Dommer and all of Yancey’s teachers had to reapply for their jobs at the school before the 2015-2016 academic year. Yancey retained only six of the 16 teachers who were there the previous year.

“When we re-hired, we hired the best applicants that Albemarle County had — teachers who were interested in solving problems and increasing student performance,” Dommer said.

Showing improvement?

Albemarle County was awarded a School Improvement Grant to support Yancey’s partnership with the Curry School in the fall of 2015. However, Lovette said a “perfect storm of bureaucracy” at the VDOE prevented Curry from starting its work at Yancey until March 2016.

The Curry School’s McGuffey Reading Center offered regular professional development for teachers and matched some Yancey children with reading tutors from Curry School graduate programs.

Other Curry faculty members led a summer workshop for Yancey teachers and offered guidance for supporting students with social, emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Yancey’s SOL test performance in English and math declined further in 2016, with pass rates of 40 and 44 percent. However, students showed improvement on the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, with 87 percent of students demonstrating a year’s growth in reading ability, and 31 percent exceeding a year’s growth.

Yancey faculty also were encouraged by a school climate survey that found that 80 percent of students liked going to school, up from 45 percent in 2015.

“Unfortunately, the state and the federal government give no weight to that improvement — only to testing benchmarks,” Dommer said.

In February, Dommer requested to be transferred to Henley Middle School. “I thought it was time for some fresh eyes to look at the school and decide what should be done next,” he said.

‘A big change’

Lovette said the turnaround program was “starting to get some really good momentum,” by this spring. The county school division planned to request a larger School Improvement Grant that would have helped Yancey’s next principal to refine the school’s multiage, interdisciplinary, project-based model for student learning.

Beginning in 2015, Yancey’s students were grouped into two pods of about 60 students each — one for kindergarten through the second grade, the other for the third through fifth grades. Six teachers were assigned to each pod.

Dommer said the multiage model benefited Yancey in many ways.

“It gave kids more of a peer group and allowed better grouping of students at similar levels of proficiency,” he said. “It gave our kids more of the opportunities that happen naturally at larger schools.”

Dommer said multiage classes also helped Yancey’s teachers by ensuring that no one would have to teach a full grade by themselves.

However, some of Yancey’s new teachers needed more time to fully master Virginia’s curriculum standards and multiage teaching practices, Dommer said.

Audra Gentry, stepmother to a Yancey student, listed concerns about multiage classes and the school’s overall quality in an online petition that requested that the School Board close Yancey or allow families to send their children to a different county school.

“Our children at Yancey should not have to suffer … because the classes are combined or because Yancey is not teaching them what they need to know,” Gentry wrote.

“Multiage learning is a big change … that looked very different to parents,” Dommer said. “It can seem like concepts and information are repeated year to year, but students actually were learning at a higher level as they got older.”

Albemarle County Public Schools applied unsuccessfully for a waiver to exempt Yancey from history and science SOL testing in 2016. Fifth-graders would have instead demonstrated mastery of science and social science standards through a portfolio of projects, work samples and assessments.

The waiver application said that adherence to grade-level pacing in a multiage learning environment was “overly burdensome” to Yancey’s teachers and “no longer in line with the school’s mission for success and student learning.”

‘A hard mountain to climb’

This spring, the VDOE notified Albemarle County Public Schools that, due to the phasing out of the No Child Left Behind Act, Yancey would lose its status as a priority school. It advised the school division to spend down Yancey’s $253,000 School Improvement Grant before the end of the current fiscal year, indicating that the grant would not be renewed.

“The rug was pulled out from under us,” said Lovette.

Yancey also was in danger of losing a $142,000 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant that supported its free after-school program, Club Yancey. These grants are eliminated from President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2018.

“It was going to be a hard mountain to climb,” said Lovette. “When you think of how much support was at Yancey every day, even the thought that it would disappear … was a huge blow for Yancey to take.”

Dommer said sending Yancey’s students to Red Hill and Scottsville should lead to better academic outcomes at both schools. “There will be more opportunity for the kids … The experience will be a little more equitable,” he said.

Dommer said he would miss Yancey’s students and the close-knit community of Esmont. “There were real relationships here,” he said. You felt the successes and challenges at a very deep level.”

“We came here every day and found new ways for kids to learn,” Dommer said. “No one stopped being creative about that. No one stopped trying to figure out how to make it work.”


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.