School of Thought: Albemarle County’s New Paradigm for High School Education

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Western Albemarle High School in Crozet. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“High School 2022,” Albemarle County’s long-planned secondary education initiative, may have a futuristic-sounding name, but that future is almost here. This fall’s entering freshmen will form the Class of 2022, and two big parts of the School Board’s master plan will launch along with them. A new first-year class aims to set students on individualized paths guided by their own strengths and interests, while innovative satellite “centers” will accommodate the shift in how and where they spend their time later in high school.

First Impressions

Albemarle County School Board
member David Oberg. (Submitted photo)

An entirely new course called the Freshman Seminar will be a required addition to the first-year curriculum at all county high schools and is intended to lay the foundation for a productive four years grounded in student self-awareness.

“The concept is premised on the notion that students are becoming increasingly disinterested in school by the time they are juniors and seniors,” said David Oberg, Albemarle County School Board representative for the White Hall District. “Kids are taking classes because they feel they are supposed to, but they don’t necessarily like the content, and so they’re uninspired. The point of the Freshman Seminar is to give a moment of reflection to kids, to allow them to take a pause and ask of themselves: what do you like about school, what makes you passionate?”

The seminar will be taught in small sections capped at 15, and each student will, ideally, be matched with an instructor in one of the student’s areas of interest (e.g., history, computer science) who can serve as an advisor and advocate for all four years. The class will count as a pass/fail elective credit, with in-class assignments that will not add homework to the student’s workload.

The aim for the year-long course is to help freshmen understand who they are as a learner and community member, and to guide them in using tools such as the strength-finders and focused surveys in the county’s Naviance program, electronic portfolios of their work, and various forms of self-reflection to discover and document their interests and talents.

“The freshman year should be about self-discovery,” said Jay Thomas, director of secondary education. “In the elementary schools we use ‘responsive classroom,’ and in the middle schools we have ‘developmental design,’ but there’s not as much that touches that social/emotional learning at the high school level.” Thomas’s team visited other schools and landed on the idea of a structured program to help freshmen understand key concepts such as identity, motivation, work balance, healthy relationships, and more.

Albemarle school division administrators Patrick McLaughlin (left) and Jay Thomas. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The day-to-day logistics of the seminar are currently being mapped out at each high school as well as at the division level. “I’ve been actively involved in this over the past year, and there are four teachers from every high school working on course development,” said WAHS Principal Darah Bonham. “From Western, we have staff from the English, math, fine arts, and social studies departments on the committee.”

WAHS will need to run about 20 sections of Freshman Seminar this fall to keep the class sizes small, and those sections will be filled by teachers who express interest. “There is already a skeleton of concepts and ideas in place for what the course will look like, and the teachers will receive more professional development over the spring and summer. That cohort of 60 or so teachers [county-wide] will have the flexibility to work together to choose the content in keeping with the course goals. They can support each other with research, individual class session development, whatever is their strength.”

One immediate concern for both students and parents is the loss of a first-year class slot that could be used for an elective such as art, music, or PE. School administrators say that after scheduling the required math, social studies, language arts, and science classes, plus the Freshman Seminar and possibly a world language, there will still be plenty of room for electives or a study hall in the typical 8-class block system.

Darah Bonham, WAHS principal. (Photo: Mike Marshall)

“We live in a world of opportunity costs,” said Bonham. “We have to think of this as not just a one-year experience for kids, we have to think about it holistically as the 9th through 12th grade experience. You are developing an idea of who you are and what are your interests on the front end, so you can choose better and more authentic experiences at the back end of your high school career.”

“The idea is to slow down to go fast,” said Patrick McLaughlin, ACPS strategic planning officer. “One of the big goals is to allow kids more choice in high school. It may seem contradictory to require them to take a Freshman Seminar, but we think in the long term this will be a basis for better choices.”

Center of Attention

Steadily increasing enrollments have been on the county’s radar for years, but the funding for (and location of) a large new high school are perennial sticking points. “I was against building a brand new high school up Rt. 29,” said Oberg. “It would take five years to build it, and we know we are not going to need a brick and mortar school for a lot of these kids. Why build an expensive school that is obsolete almost before we start?”

A pair of outside educational design consultants was hired by the county last year to assess the school system’s future facility needs, and they proposed an innovative approach: Rather than build another full-sized high school to alleviate current and imminent overcrowding, the county should modernize its existing buildings while also developing a series of small, satellite high school “centers” that can accommodate a much more flexible learning community.

The consultants submitted plans for an initial 90,000 square-foot prototype center that could accommodate 600 students at an estimated cost of $31 million, but the county will test the idea in smaller steps. To pilot the concept, the county plans to host students this fall in a leased commercial space dubbed the Center for Creativity and Invention—or more colloquially, Albemarle Tech. Beginning with seniors who express interest and expanding to about 150 10th through 12th grade students the following year, the intent is for opportunity to meet creativity.

Ira Socol, Executive Director of Technologies and Innovation for Albemarle County Public Schools. (Submitted photo)

“I’m very excited about it,” said Ira Socol, executive director of technologies and innovation for the division. “The center will be co-located with teams of county network and software engineering experts called Learning Technology Integrators, in a space that will have many internship options within the same building and nearby.” (The site lease is under negotiation and details on its whereabouts will be released soon.) The participating seniors will do their work at the center for most of the day, but get back to their home schools for clubs or extracurricular activities as needed.

Larger centers planned for the future aim to mesh functionally with how administrators expect students will be spending their time—engaged with their community in meaningful work-based experiences. Strategically located for ease of access, each could host several hundred students at a time, and would feature both academic wings and community-oriented spaces where students could work individually or in groups with teachers, specialists, and businesspeople. Labs for tech projects such as audio and video production as well as science, computer, and robotics studios would be available and reconfigurable. Instead of a cafeteria, a college-style café could provide a meal whenever a student was ready to eat.

“We want this to be rooted in natural learning,” said Socol, “where we take the natural curiosity of kids and use that to drive content. We have to learn not to count ‘seat time’ as the only metric for completion—the criterion for evaluation should be whether the student can say, ‘I can do this now.’”

Undergirding the center initiative is a set of revised ideas about how to better prepare high schoolers for the real world. College and career readiness will be fostered not only by acquiring content knowledge but also by learning workplace skills, citizenship, and community engagement.

“We’re not changing everything, we are changing the emphasis,” said McLaughlin. “We want students to graduate and say, ‘That was a good use of my time,’ not just go through the motions. In a system where every kid has access to project-based and experiential learning, a center model may give them a lot more opportunities to pursue what they love.”

Toward this end, HS 2022 envisions that students will be able to gain credit toward their high school diplomas for a wide variety of experiences, and to pitch their own ideas for doing so. For example, creating a scripted video “virtual tour” of an historic site might allow the student to gain language arts, history, and career tech credits. In the same vein, less emphasis will be placed on rote “cramming,” and more on work-based experience. “If you can look it up on your phone in less than 30 seconds, then maybe we don’t need to be memorizing it,” said Socol.

“We’ve heard for years from both parents and kids about rising mental health issues among students,” said Thomas, “and about kids leading the charge with local legislators on the need to reduce stress in high school. Too many kids leave school with no idea what they like to do or what their interests are,” because of the gauntlet of required academic work. “We want to see kids graduating more happy and healthy.”

Western Albemarle High School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

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