Some of Albemarle County’s students are learning on their own terms.
During a School Board meeting Thursday, Ashby Kindler, principal of the Community Public Charter School, provided an update on Albemarle’s alternative middle school.
“Many students don’t have an opportunity to shine in large schools, and middle school is such an important time in students’ lives to develop a sense of who they are and what their interests are,” Kindler said. “With small class sizes, we are able to learn the strengths of our students and adjust our curriculum to capitalize off of them.”
Established in 2008, CPCS — which is located in the lower level of Burley Middle School — was designed to serve students who struggle in late elementary years and are at risk of falling behind their peers. The school offers instruction in grades six through eight, but only admits new students during the first two years.
Currently, 50 percent of the students are eligible for special education services, 34.1 percent are economically disadvantaged, about 9 percent have limited English proficiency and about 2 percent are gifted, according to school officials. Enrollment at CPCS has grown from 23 in 2008 to about 45 this year.
CPCS is one of two charter schools in Albemarle County, and one of six in Virginia. The other charter school is Murray High School.
Charter schools are allowed to operate under their own rules and use their own curriculum, but students are still required to meet state and federal accountability standards.
One reason for the low number of charters in Virginia is state law, which says that both the Virginia Department of Education and the particular locality’s school board must approve the charter.
Instruction at CPCS centers on a student-centered, project-based arts approach. The rationale behind this approach, school co-founder Bobbi Snow has said, is that artists learn problem-solving skills and take risks. The school also utilizes psychiatrist William Glasser’s Choice Theory, which allows CPCS students to choose their own paths to success within assignments and in their learning as a whole.
About 78 percent of former CPCS students are on-track to graduate from high school, officials said. The remaining students are either in their first semester of high school or are less than one year behind.
One of the challenges CPCS faces is space. Officials there would like to expand to serve more students, but with limited space in Burley, they are unable to do so without increasing the school’s class sizes, which are small by design.
CPCS’ per pupil cost exceeds the middle school average. In fiscal year 2014, CPCS’ expenditure was $10,369, as compared to the county’s middle school average of $7,794. The school’s cost per pupil would drop if it were able to grow, officials said.
All students take a high school bus to a base high school then take another bus to CPCS. As a result, they lose about to an hour a day of instruction.
The school also faces financial pressure. While the Albemarle School Board allocates funds to the school each year — about $330,000, or 70-75 percent of the school’s budget — and while CPCS has raised over $1 million since its opening, the school still relies heavily on private donations.
Kindler said community support is welcome in the form of financial gifts, art supplies and artists who can help teach 4- to 6-week electives that vary in topic.
“Any major donors for this cause would be truly a blessing,” Kindler added.
Despite the challenges, parents praise the program.
Ellen Ramsey, a parent of a sixth-grade student, said the school has made a huge difference in her son’s life and, probably, Albemarle’s wallet.
“I’m pretty sure if he had gone to Sutherland, which is his home school, what he would be costing the county in extra services would probably cost more than what he gets at CPCS, and he certainly wouldn’t be as successful,” Ramsey said.
Athena Palmer, an eighth grader at the school, also had a positive review.
“It’s a place where our voices are heard, and where our teachers care about us,” Palmer said, adding that she likes the amount of options students have.
School Board members Jason Buyaki and Pam Moynihan spoke in support of the program, noting letters from the community and a commitment to its necessity.
William Deane, Albemarle’s assistant director of transportation, who reviewed the school’s program, recommended establishing goals and benchmarks to measure the school’s efficacy, review the use of space in the school and review transportation options to extend the amount of time students spend at CPCS.
Additionally, Deane said, most teaching applicants are unfamiliar with division, school and culture, so the division should use CPCS teachers in division-wide professional development.
The school’s charter is up for renewal in July 2015.