This prototype of a 90,000 sq. foot high school center was included in a facilities planning study completed for Albemarle County by HBA Architecture & Interior Design and Fielding Nair International. Credit: Credit: Image courtesy of Albemarle County Public Schools/HBA x FNI

The Albemarle County School Board on Thursday voted 5-2 to accept a consultant’s recommendation to create one or two new centers dedicated to project-based learning for high school students while modernizing academic spaces at the county’s existing high schools. The total cost of the recommended projects is estimated at $87.9 million.

This spring, Albemarle hired HBA Architecture & Interior Design and subcontractor Fielding Nair International to complete a high school facilities planning study. The consultants were tasked with recommending solutions for accommodating population growth that is straining the capacity of county high schools.
With 1,973 students currently enrolled, Albemarle High School has already exceeded its program capacity. Albemarle calculates a building’s program capacity as 87.5 percent of its maximum capacity.
The school division projects enrollment at AHS to peak at about 2,150 in 2024. It forecasts a more rapid rate of growth at Western Albemarle High School in Crozet. Enrollment at WAHS is expected to increase from 1,147 this year to 1,335 in 2024.
Enrollment at Monticello High School, now at 1,243, is projected to be slightly lower in 2024. 
HBA and Fielding Nair also were tasked with identifying the facility needs of the county’s envisioned academic program, High School 2022, which focuses on expanding student-designed, interdisciplinary and community-based learning.
HBA and Fielding Nair consultants shared several options for building new school facilities with the School Board and division staff in October. Their final report, released this week, recommends building centers for specialized high school programs, instead of a new comprehensive high school. 
“This recommendation really is at the intersection of our capacity and instructional needs,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, director of budget and planning for the county schools. “And I think the most important part is that it affects and benefits all of our students.”
The recommended center-based model would require the county to implement a new transportation network to shuttle students to between the centers and their base high school.
Also on Thursday, the School Board approved a budget initiative for next year that would enable students to be bused from a satellite stop to an existing academy program at a high school they are not districted to attend.
“When we talk about creating more community-based learning, there has to be a shift from door-to-door busing to more of a systematic shuttle approach,” Schmitt said. “Next year, we will be able to pilot this system and test it out.”
The School Board also has considered building a new comprehensive high school on a 61-acre site near the intersection of U.S. 29 and Rio Mills Road, which the county received as a proffer for the Brookhill subdivision. 
Fielding Nair estimated that the new high school would cost $90 million— more than the combined cost estimates of the proposed satellite centers and modernization of existing schools. Opening a new high school also would require a redistricting that would dramatically reduce enrollment at Albemarle High School.
“I have been persuaded that a staged, center-based approach addresses the need for capacity and modernization across all of our high schools,” said School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff. “It results in better access and equity for our students. It would not require redistricting, which is always challenging for our community, … and it is the most cost-efficient way to go forward.”
While the study did not identify specific locations for the new high school centers, it recommended placing the largest one near the intersection of the U.S. 29 Bypass and U.S. 250 West.
Fielding-Nair’s prototype for a larger 90,000-square-foot center would be able to hold 600 students. It would contain an “Innovation Core” — with a café, digital media labs and project studios that could accommodate new specialized academies — and two academic wings featuring differently designed spaces for group work. 
A sample project timeline in the report suggested completing the 600-student center in time for the 2021-2022 school year. It also included a timeline for opening a smaller center for 200 students in the 2024-2025 academic year, when the division’s high school enrollment is expected to reach a peak.
The estimated cost of the larger center is $31.5 million, and the smaller center is estimated at $9.5 million. 
The report also included detailed recommendations for modernizing portions of Albemarle’s existing high schools. The plans generally call for the creation of large common spaces surrounded by smaller classrooms and studios. 
Schmitt said some of Albemarle’s older high school buildings are relics of the 20th century’s “factory model” for education, which prioritized memorization over collaboration and creativity. 
“That is not how we teach today, and that is not the environment in which we want our students to learn,” Schmitt said. “It’s really about meeting the individual needs of each student.”
The total cost of modernizing Albemarle’s three comprehensive high schools and Murray High School — a public charter school — was estimated at about $46 million. This estimate includes the installation of modular classrooms during construction,
Construction for the recommended modernization projects at Albemarle High could temporarily reduce the school’s capacity for enrollment. The facilities report suggested opening a small “tech center” on leased space with capacity for up to 120 students as early as next year.
The report’s sample project timeline included Election Days in 2018 and 2020, when Albemarle could potentially hold a bond referendum to fund the projects. 
Albemarle voters passed a $35 million bond referendum in 2016 to pay for additions, renovations and improvements to existing school buildings throughout the county. The county’s previous bond referendum took place in March 1974, to finance the construction of Western Albemarle High School.

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.