School Notes: February 2020

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Brownsville Elementary’s 2020 spelling bee champion, Max Alhusen, and his mom Jeanne. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Spell Check

Max Alhusen stepped up to the microphone and received his final word: salamanders. He enunciated the letters slowly and carefully (and correctly) to become the last kid standing at Brownsville Elementary’s 2020 spelling bee. “I participated [in the bee] last year but I didn’t get this far,” said Max, currently a fourth grader. “I didn’t have any doubt about the last word,” he said with a smile.

Brownsville holds a classroom bee for every third, fourth, and fifth grade class in the school, for a total of 18 eventual contestants in the school-wide bee. “The whole bee is nationally organized by Scripps,” said coordinator Trish Moya. “Before winter break, they send out a book list and all of the words that are going to be in the spelling bee are in those books, so students will have seen them if they read the books. They also distribute lists of practice spelling words.” 

Max Alhusen, Brownsville Elementary’s 2020 spelling bee champion, stays cool under pressure. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Practicing is completely optional, though of course it provides an edge. “My teacher gives the person who won and the runner-up in our class a packet with words to practice, so I did that and also I did some sixth-grade spelling on the computer,” said Max. “I read a lot, I really like to read.” Does reading help him recognize words? “I never really thought of that, but probably,” he said.

Brownsville’s bee words were read out by second grade teacher David Foreman, who also gave a sentence if the word had a near homonym, and green or red cards were held up by three judges after the spelling was given. Early rounds contained words such as “reasonable,” “fiercest,” “colonists,” and “disinfectant,” with a few zingers like “antennas” thrown in, plus the very modern “beatboxing.” Eventual runner-up Henry Ciesil even recognized a former nemesis in the word “furrow,” saying, “I got out on that one last year—I’m not making that mistake again,” before spelling it correctly. 

Brownsville student Lily-Rose Hisel gets the green card signal from the judges after she correctly spells a word at the 2020 spelling bee. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The competitors had rehearsed the stage process and use of the microphone the day before the bee, reminding themselves to “say/spell/say” the word, to ask questions if they needed clarification, and to start over if they got stuck in the middle. Three contestants remained at the end of eleven rounds of spelling, and Max was ultimately the victor. His second year of making the finals has increased his confidence. “I’m still a little nervous doing it, but now that I’ve gotten used to it, I’m much less nervous,” he said.  

Action and Reaction

Heidi Robinson tries to make sure her second graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary never have a dull month. “My goal to have an event each month that they eagerly anticipate until it arrives and then talk about for the rest of the month,” she said. January’s event was Science Day, and Robinson marshalled her resources to make sure the day was over the top. To be ready, the students became comfortable with the scientific method by practicing ahead of time.

Second graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary examine rock formations with special black light flashlights during Science Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

“We are doing earth science and states of matter, and I felt that some students weren’t as excited as they could be about it,” said Robinson. “So, I went online and found science sites that had experiments using simple sets of materials that weren’t expensive and were capable of being done in a limited period of time, both demonstrations and small group activities.” She also reached out to parents to invite them to be “co-teachers” on some of the experiments so she could do more of them.

“The kids go through the whole scientific process for each experiment,” said Robinson. “They had to keep a journal, form hypotheses, list their materials, detail their procedure, and then observe what happened and adjust their conclusions accordingly, so by the time we got through five or six experiments they really got it.”

On Science Day, Robinson had arranged for parents and volunteers to help with experiments involving fingerprinting (“like they were in the FBI”) and candy science—exploring the properties of floating candies in water and carbonated soda. The afternoon was slated for a presentation by professors from U.Va.’s chemistry department (which was rumored to include explosions), and the middle of the day featured Dr. Robert Tai of U.Va’s Curry School of Education.

Second graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary line up to take turns riding on a hover disk brought by UVA Curry School professor Dr. Robert Tai for Science Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Dr. Tai brought a wide variety of geological formations, from space rocks to geodes, and students went from table to table touching them and shining small, black light flashlights on them to explore their phosphorescent properties. “It turns green!” they marveled. But the high point of Dr. Tai’s visit was his demonstration of a hover disk—a round, air-powered, go-cart sized contraption that could hold three students at a time, riding just above the floor on a blast of air. 

Second graders at Meriwether Lewis Elementary ride atop a hover disk, brought by UVA Curry School professor Dr. Robert Tai for Science Day. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Robinson and Dr. Tai stood at opposite ends of the gym and pushed the kid-filled disk back and forth across the space as the cushion of air underneath ensured they wouldn’t stop unless something got in their way. As the students waited their turn and cheered for their classmates, they took in an object lesson in friction and unbalanced forces that thrilled them.

“Dr. Tai is really gifted at teaching kids to love science,” said Robinson. “It’s great to show them how to use their powers of observation, and to notice how it’s not just a classroom topic—the world is science!”

Budget Bliss

A significant increase in state and local funding has led to a 2020-21 school division budget proposal that is firmly in the black. “This will be the first time in more than a generation that an Albemarle County Public Schools superintendent has submitted a funding request that is balanced,” said Superintendent Matt Haas during a review of his annual budget proposal, this year titled “A Work in Progress.” “We were able to balance revenues and expenditures and still provide the resources needed to provide exceptional learning experiences for our students.”

This year’s budget benefits from a double bonus—an increase in state funding by more than $7 million plus a rise in local education funding by almost $6 million. These swings are primarily due to a reduction in our Local Composite Index (a measure of the county’s ability to fund education costs), which means the state contributes more of the burden, and a strong local economy expected to generate increased tax revenue. The division projects expenditures to rise by $13 million to match revenues, resulting in a $209.1 million budget, which is $13.6 million over last year (a 7% increase).

Haas highlighted three elements of the request that make up the bulk of this year’s increase. “The first is a recommendation for an up to 3% compensation increase for teachers . . . to maintain our competitive strength in the marketplace,” he said. He also pointed to “a 1.5% increase in compensation for classified staff where we’re at market rates, and a minimum wage of between $13.50 and $15 per hour. Together, these total more than 50% of our funding requests in expenditures.”

Second, Haas noted a $4.7 million increase in expenditures to cover growth in student enrollment, such as adding teachers, bus drivers, and custodians. “We are projecting a 500-student enrollment increase from last year’s budget cycle, and these funds will protect our competitive class sizes,” he said. Third, the division plans to continue progress on last year’s initiatives such as funding a high school center and a National Defense Cadet Corps program, adding more elementary and middle school counselors to staff, and redesigning the gifted education program.

Four additional proposals total $500,000 and would (1) add between 72 and 144 seats to the after-school enrichment program for at-risk students, (2) add staffing to world language instruction for elementary schools, (3) expand the STEP program, which keeps students in school who were previously suspended, and (4) add a student mental health counseling coordinator for middle and high schools.

After a series of School Board work sessions on the funding request, a public hearing was held January 30. The request then will be sent to the county Board of Supervisors, which will hold a public hearing on the budget for local government and schools on April 13 and adopt a budget and tax rate on April 20. 

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