The Albemarle County School Board is studying “high schools of the future” and its members say they have learned a valuable lesson: Not only do classrooms need refreshing, but so do basic instructional methods if teachers are to engage today’s students.
Instead of planning one new high school, the school division is now revaluating how all of its schools could benefit from more flexible learning spaces and a new approach to student engagement that will fuel creativity.
“We don’t want our kids to work in places where they build the iPads, we want our kids to continue to be the young people who fuel the inventions, the work that really causes us as a nation to be great,” said Albemarle schools Superintendent Pam Moran.
The School Board didn’t have to travel far for inspiration. Before a work session Thursday, two of its members toured the new science lab at Charlottesville High School. The city has invested $1.26 million in an 8,580-square-foot facility that provides students room to collaborate and utilizes a computer-aided design process with 3D printers.
The work session at Albemarle High School also was stimulated by faculty and students from across the county who made up a group of about 50 people recruited to share insights with the board.
“I think that the teachers I tend to hear kids talk about are the ones who make them learn without realizing they are learning,” said AHS choir director Jennifer Morris.
Albemarle junior Grant Kersey agreed and said he learns best when he can take a more creative approach to his work in Spanish 4.
“Our teacher very rarely assigns a rubric … and kids think in a whole different way,” Kersey said. “When you are given a rubric, you go for the rubric and for the grade. If you can be creative, that creates a whole new grade because you are showing that you want to learn and you can learn in different ways.”
Albemarle teaching assistant Chance Dickerson proudly put his students in front of the board during a tour of the “A3 House” — the Albemarle Alternative Arts space — where a diverse group of students meets daily in a new music studio.
Albemarle senior Kolion Troche has helped to outfit the studio with equipment and a sound booth. He told the board that recording rap music can be a collaborative endeavor that helps students learn.
“Everybody wants to be like what they see on TV,” Troche said. “Everybody wants to rap and play around. So I asked, ‘How can I get that with school work?’”
“I made a song about ancient history, and that’s not even my favorite subject,” Troche said. “It was so interesting to act like the people you see on TV and perform it. It made me want to do it again on my next project.”
Mike Craddock, a school division instructional coach, said getting teachers to say ‘yes’ to creative learning opportunities is a big shift.
“It all doesn’t have to be 20 kids all doing the same thing at the same time,” Craddock said. “When Kolion had an idea that he wanted to share his learning by making a song, somewhere a teacher said, ‘Yes that’s great.’”
The School Board recently approved a capital funding plan that includes nearly $70 million over 10 years for modernized learning spaces. The project would update classrooms in all of the division’s school buildings.
School Board member Eric Strucko suggested that how those funds are allocated might benefit from a new approach.
“We should look at allocating dollars like block grants to schools and let the students and faculty figure out ways to utilize those funds,” Strucko said. “That’s what happened at Charlottesville [High School] … where they let the teachers and students sit with the architects to design the space.”
School Board member Kate Acuff asked what teachers need to make the shift.
“I can guarantee, regardless of who you ask, the first thing they will say is time,” said AHS’ principal, Jay Thomas. “It’s not that no one wants to do this, it’s finding the time to build it in.”
Troche said in an interview that he was now looking forward to graduation and service in the U.S. Navy. Working in the A3 House studio, he said, is his reward for getting his assignments done and that he wants to help others embrace learning.
“My years from ninth to 11th grade, I messed up and did a lot of things when I was not engaged because I didn’t have anything I was interested in,” Troche said. “I want to make a difference and do this in a positive way that helps the kids in Albemarle High School.”
“I just want to spark young minds to help the next generation out,” Troche said.
Moran said after the meeting that a small steering committee would refine a set of recommendations for the board to consider before winter break.
Listen to a 6 minute bonus interview with Superintendent Pam Moran who reflects on the school board’s next steps.