The Albemarle County School Board focused on the school division’s three specialized academies and the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center at its work session Thursday.
The Math, Engineering and Science Academy at Albemarle High School opened in 2009. MESA was followed by the Health and Medical Sciences Academy at Monticello High School in 2012 and the Environmental Studies Academy at Western Albemarle High School in 2014.
Mathematics lead coach Jeff Prillaman, who served as MESA’s first director, said the three academies prepare students for careers in “some of the strongest areas of need” in today’s workforce.
Each of the academies accepts applications from students in all of the division’s high school feeder patterns. Applicants are required to write multiple essays and submit letters of recommendation from teachers.
Students take one quarter of their classes in the academies, which emphasize hands-on activities and project-based learning experiences. They also must fulfill state graduation requirements for other subjects.
The academies are funded through the county schools’ budget but also rely on grants from outside sources. On Thursday, HMSA at Monticello was awarded a $37,500 state grant to purchase diagnostic virtual modeling equipment.
The three academies enrolled 508 students this year: 247 at MESA, 160 in Health and Medical, and 101 in Environmental Studies. While ESA and MESA each enroll similar numbers of male and female students, about 75 percent of students at HMSA are female.
Prillaman said the academies had a “rubber-band effect” on pedagogy in county schools, pulling the elementary and middle schools toward more rigorous math and science curricula.
“All middle schools have mechatronics classes. Fifth-graders at Agnor-Hurt [Elementary] are programming with Arduinos,” Prillaman said, referring to the open-source electronics hardware and software. “Students can do much more than we sometimes give them credit for.”
Prillaman noted that students admitted to the academies this year entered ninth grade with more advanced science skills than their predecessors.
“You can’t be stagnant with what you’re doing as educators,” Prillaman said. “You have to step up your game.”
Prillaman said there were many commonalities between the academies and CATEC. Both programs offer interdisciplinary education and bring together students with similar interests, he said.
Prillaman’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring students and representatives from area businesses.
Vincent Chang graduated from MESA last year and is currently an intern at Northrop-Grumman. He said that the atmosphere at MESA reminded him more of the creative energy at Google’s headquarters than the rigid order of a factory floor.
“There was structure, but there was also freedom,” Chang said.
“Hands-on learning … gives you the opportunity to learn from trial and error,” said ESA student Jenna Reilly. “It helps me learn things so much more effectively.”
Jesse Cosgrove said he had enjoyed his experience in CATEC’s firefighter training program.
“I’ve already done stuff that people in the Charlottesville Fire Department do every day, and I’ve learned it just like they have,” Cosgrove said.
After the panel discussion, more students in the academies answered questions from the School Board members in breakout groups.
School Board member Pam Moynihan asked the students in her breakout group about the greatest weakness of their programs.
James Mahoney, a member of the ESA’s first graduating class, said adjustments made to the academy’s curriculum caused confusion for students each year when they choose their courses.
“Messing with the curriculum each year … made it difficult for me to make my high school [academic] plan,” Mahoney said.
“We don’t have a lot of diversity,” said MESA student Ishpreet Singh. “This separation happens at a young age … As a program, we need to go out and show more kids what we are doing and what they can shoot for.”
White and Asian students made up 91 percent of MESA’s student body this year, according to Prillaman’s presentation to the School Board. Ninety-two percent of students in the Environmental Sciences Academy this year are white.
Prillaman said the school division also needed to provide more professional development for teachers in the academies.
“Some teachers are not used to a project-rich environment, where students learn by doing instead of through lectures,” Prillaman said.