Students in Charlottesville and Albemarle County public schools are learning in new and exciting ways — evidenced by an event hosted by the Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle.
The foundation, a grant-making program that raises money for the two school divisions, highlighted those innovations at an event at the University of Virginia on Friday.
“Innovation is about much more than providing resources,” said Pam Moran, Albemarle’s superintendent. “It is a process that allows us as never before to empower students to become global leaders … in how they think, create, apply knowledge, work together, communicate and treat one another.”
Phil Giaramita, spokesman for Albemarle’s schools, agreed.
“We know that the most promising return on investment is delivered by a strong educational system, one closely aligned with business and community needs and on the forward edge of dynamic change,” Giaramita said. “The leadership of the Public Education [Foundation] in bringing business and community leaders to the table with local educators and students is a powerful forward step for our community.”
“It is a partnership that can have a long-term impact in the way in which students learn, create, collaborate and contribute in a very competitive environment,” he said. “It truly offers a pathway to a better quality of life.”
Adam Mulcahy, director of Western Albemarle High School’s Environmental Studies Academy, highlighted academy learning.
“It looks like the students. They are controlling it and I’m just there to give them direction,” Mulcahy said.
“Within that dynamic, they become colleagues,” he said. “They share ideas, they collaborate.”
Each of Albemarle’s three comprehensive high schools offer a specialty academy, and about 15 percent of the division’s students participate in the academies, which are currently operating at full capacity.
Matt Shields, a physics teacher at Charlottesville High School, said innovation is important, but argued that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) isn’t something new. However, what is new, he said, is the ubiquity of personal computing devices.
“It’s changing how we live and therefore should change how we educate,” Shields said.
“My job is no longer to be … the disseminator of information, and schools need to understand that the information is in the students’ pockets,” Shields said. “My job is now to be a facilitator and help my students parse through that knowledge.”
Moran characterized Albemarle’s teaching and learning innovations as “impressive.”
“High-speed Internet empowers drama students to Skype with and learn from award-winning Broadway actors; gain eyewitness accounts about the Arab Spring from a participant in Cairo’s central square; replicate Civil War battlefields using 3D printing; engage in online discussions with university scientists; and collaborate around the clock with their peers on student-designed projects,” Moran said.
Kolion Troche, a senior at Albemarle High School, was among a group of students who developed a sound studio to combine music making with academic subjects such as history and biology.
“I asked myself how I could rap to make kids from our next generation and this generation do better than they’re doing right now,” Troche said, noting that the new use of technology serves as an educational tool.
“You’ll learn better from other students [because] it’s easier to do these videos than to have students sit in front of a teacher and look inside of a book,” he said.
Mary Stelow and Chris Hayes, both juniors at Charlottesville High, have studied robotics and have constructed a weather balloon that they sent into space. Additionally, they participate in CHS’ Best All-around Club of Nerds (BACON) — a student group that focuses on all fields of science.
Having the opportunity to work on projects like these, Stelow and Hayes said, has taught them about solving problems.
“Science isn’t a recipe that you follow,” Stelow said. “You have a challenge or a problem or something that you want to do, and you just do it.”
“It’s about overcoming obstacles and creative thinking,” Hayes said. “When we go out into the world, engineering or not, we’re going to have to overcome these problems that we’re facing — not only as humanity, but also on a daily, community level.”
All of the students said they are pleased their school divisions support innovative teaching and learning.
Troche is experiencing this support at the classroom level, as other teachers have started requesting that the music-making students create instructional videos to aid in their teaching. For example, he said, a teacher recently asked him to shoot a rap video about cells.
“It feels amazing to have teachers come to you to ask for help,” Troche said.
“It’s so easy to say that you want people to become problem-solvers and that you want people to stand up and do stuff,” Stelow said. “But BACON was so great because … we just started doing stuff and [Charlottesville City Schools] built our lab for us.”
This is all music to the ears of Jim Powers, chairman and chief executive officer of HemoShear, a Charlottesville-based biotech company. Powers said his organization is bringing in science teachers for professional development in HemoShear’s lab in an effort to help ensure growth of businesses like his in Central Virginia.
“Then they can take their experience back to their students,” Powers said. “And we will recruit more businesses like ours from around the state to invite teachers to come in.”
Rosa Atkins, Charlottesville’s superintendent, said the division’s innovative practices wouldn’t be possible without community support.
“All of this came together because we have people in our community who are passionate,” Atkins said, citing the community partnership with the Public Education Fund. “You’ve seen examples of innovation today. Help us to scale that up so it’s available to every student.”
For more information on the Public Education Fund, visit www.pefca.org.