Students and parents check out a new space for first grade and kindergarten during the recent back-to-school night at Woodbrook Elementary School. Credit: Credit: Andrew Shurtleff, The Daily Progress

Wednesday was the first morning of the school year at the newly renovated Woodbrook Elementary School, and one new student, Jeremiah, couldn’t find his classroom.

Lisa Molinaro, Woodbrook’s principal, took the nervous boy by the hand. After failing to find his teacher in several classrooms, Molinaro picked up a copy of the student roster at the school’s main office. She then brought Jeremiah to a quiet room where kindergarteners and first-graders were sculpting with Play-Doh.

Molinaro squatted down to Jeremiah’s height and smiled.

“Did we go on a hike?” she said. “Did we go on a journey?”

When Woodbrook’s renovated building opened, it also marked the start of a journey for the Albemarle County school’s community.

Construction on the 40,000-square-foot addition to the northern Albemarle school occurred over the past two summers. The main components are two multiage learning spaces that expanded the school’s enrollment capacity from 338 students to 610.

Woodbrook’s largest multiage classroom is used by six teachers and more than 100 students. Each student is assigned to a “pod” led by a pair of teachers. They will spend much of the day working with classmates of different ages on group projects. 

Jamee Dion will teach a pod of fourth-graders this year. She said that multiage classrooms give students more opportunities to set the pace of their own learning.

“It’s very different from a traditional classroom, where you have to rely on one teacher’s expertise to differentiate instruction,” Dion said.

The multiage classrooms feature “campfire” spaces for large meetings; “watering holes” for small-group instruction; and “cave spaces,” where children can work by themselves.

“This addition was designed with the individual child in mind,” Molinaro said. “There is a place for every student at this school.”

The expanded Woodbrook also features a new gymnasium and a music classroom.

Some outdoor learning spaces planned for the school still are under construction. Along with an art studio, a makerspace and a gallery, they will be a part of a series of spaces designed to promote project-based learning throughout the school.

This year, Woodbrook also will pilot a controlled-access electronic security system for the school division. Metal keys have been replaced with electronic key fobs that can be deactivated if they are misplaced.

County schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said Albemarle public safety officials will be given fobs, allowing them to enter the school if an emergency occurs outside of operating hours.

“It made sense, because of the change at Woodbrook, to incorporate the system upfront there,” Giaramita said. “The plan is into incorporate it at other schools later on.”

The Woodbrook addition was funded with $15.2 million of Albemarle’s $35.1 million bond referendum from 2016.

The Board of Supervisors appropriated additional funds to the project in 2017, raising its budget to $16.5 million. Giaramita said the final cost could be closer to $16.1 million.

Although the physical expansion of Woodbrook is eye-catching, the biggest change is this year’s influx of nearly 200 new students.

In January, the School Board approved a redistricting that moved 113 Greer Elementary students and 72 Agnor-Hurt Elementary students to Woodbrook. These redistricted areas also had their middle school assignments changed from Burley Middle School to Jack Jouett Middle School.

Molinaro spent the summer overseeing Woodbrook’s academic intervention programs, which were held at Agnor-Hurt during the construction. She also conducted dozens of interviews to hire 23 additional teachers and classified staff.

“July was packed, and August has been nonstop,” she said. “I was just trying to make sure that we were going to be open in time. If you had asked me three days ago, I might have had doubts.”

Most Albemarle teachers returned to their classrooms on Aug. 13, but Woodbrook’s weren’t ready until Aug. 16. While they waited, the staff took a field trip to James Monroe’s Highland and visited each neighborhood in the Woodbrook school district.

Without that initial inconvenience, Molinaro said, “a lot of personal connection would never have happened.”

In her morning announcements Wednesday, Molinaro shared an African proverb with her students: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

“I want you all to think: Who will I put before myself?” she said. “Who will I help get to where they need to be?”


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.