School Notes: November 2020

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WAHS biology and horticulture teacher Dawn Tinder (left) and apiarist Brooke Savage at the school’s bee enclosure. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Always Bee Respectful

Western Albemarle High School hosts its own bee colony in an enclosure behind the school next to the Environmental Studies Academy (ESA) building, and thanks to a recent donation by the Rivanna Garden Club, students can now monitor the bees remotely. “The club donated a piece of electronic hive monitoring software called BroodMinder that allows us to [wirelessly] track what’s going on in the hives and communicate the hive data to students,” said Brooke Savage, an apiarist (a.k.a. beekeeper) who works with WAHS teacher Dawn Tinder to manage the school’s honey bee population.

Tinder teaches environmental biology and horticulture and has partnered with Savage, who comes in to teach a class once a month and has worked with students at the hives during summer break. In addition to managing and consulting on a variety of hives across the region, Savage also works for The Elysium Honey Company, which supports “protecting the pollinator” through outreach and mentoring programs. “Brooke approached us as Elysium was looking for schools to host apiaries, and also she has a daughter in the ESA program, which is awesome,” said Tinder.

Elysium donated the hives full of Italian honey bees and provided the funding for Savage to manage them, and the program is now in its third year at WAHS. When students were in school in person, they would feed the bees, extract the honey, and learn how to identify the different workers in the hive and how to spot and mark the queen. The BroodMinder software was already up and running as schools closed last spring due to the pandemic, so now the students can receive hive data remotely. 

Local apiarist (beekeeper) Brooke Savage tends WAHS’s two hives, which contain as many as 70,000 bees during the summer months. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“There are different sensors on the hive so we can track of things like temperature, humidity, and the weight of the hive to allow us to monitor the health of the bees and to predict when they are likely to swarm,” said Savage. “That way we can go out and make that separation [of the queen] to manage the process.” In the height of summer, WAHS’s hives host about 70,000 bees, though that number drops to 5,000 or so in winter after most of the males are kicked out. The school held a “honey for your honey” fundraiser last spring in partnership with Elysium to be able to buy eight protective bee jackets and veils for the students.

Bee populations worldwide are in decline, and Savage noted that 40% of bees in Virginia died last year. “Since we’re not able to actually save the bees, my goal is to replace them so I breed queens and start new hives to make up for the losses,” she said. “It’s important for the students to understand that the bee [deaths] problem is nuanced—it’s not just herbicides and pesticides, it’s a lack of forage, it’s pest predation, it’s mice, it’s tons of factors. Bees are the ultimate example of ‘it’s complicated.’

“Bees are actually responsible for one-third of every bite of food we eat, so lots of groups, including the state, are heavily involved in managing and helping educate people about them,” said Savage. She said that “backyard beekeepers,” if not properly trained, can cause more harm than good with a failed hive that can have a cascading impact on other hives in a wide area. “The average person should not jump on the bandwagon without knowing what they’re doing; there’s really so much to it.”

At WAHS, students will hopefully get back to their charges soon. “They are super enthused about the hives,” said Tinder. “I even had rising freshmen last year tell me they were looking forward to being part of it.” Data from the WAHS bees is shared with BroodMinder data from other hives all over the world, which aids in tracking trends in bee health. While Tinder appreciates the apiary’s hands-on enhancement to the insect ecology part of her courses, both she and Savage see managing the hives as an important way for students to think broadly about their environment.

“This is really a citizen science project that the students are participating in,” said Savage. “It’s a global citizen bee-watching activity. Our goal is not to raise a bunch of beekeepers, but to have each student have an opportunity to hold a frame of bees in their hands—it’s empowering. It’s really loud and invigorating and amazing to be a spectator to so much activity, and for the rest of their lives the students are always going to be very cool about bees, and much nicer to them.”

Taking Special Care

A small group of students were invited back into schools this fall to take their online classes with the assistance of an in-person learning coach, including certain students with special needs. In the western district, Brownsville Elementary is hosting several of these students in a program run by special education teacher Andy Croll, who says the experience has been illuminating in many ways. “I can see my own children’s worries and trepidation with their virtual classes that they’re going through right now at home,” said Croll, “but then I’m also running this program and seeing kids learning in person, which has been very interesting.”

Brownsville Elementary special education teacher Andy Croll. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Croll works alongside four teaching assistants to instruct seven C-base students—three in-person and four at home, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. “In the C-base group I have students with autism but also kids with Down Syndrome, and they have diagnoses that show they need to have a room where they can learn in a curriculum that we develop for them,” he said. “My kids need things like adaptive P.E. and speech and occupational therapy, so they can, say, be part of morning meeting online with their class but then we work with them individually at whatever level is appropriate.” 

Because the school is relatively empty, Croll’s class has been able to move from its usual small interior classroom to occupy two Kindergarten classrooms along Brownsville’s back wing, where they have direct access to the outdoors and the playground. “We have Smart Boards here so the kids can see and interact with their classmates during the day—like just this morning they were all introducing their favorite stuffed animals to each other online,” he said. “Because there’s no gym access right now we have a lot of structured play outside and I’ve made that part of the day, and we eat outside when we can, too, so we can distance more and there’s less of a problem with mask-wearing. And of course the kids love watching Mr. Bricker’s music class and engaging with that.”

Right now, Croll and his assistants can simply glance outside the door to see if anyone else is using the playground equipment, and they order lunch each day from the Western Albemarle High School cafeteria, which is delivered to them. But things will change when schools reopen. “We’ll have to be extra careful with other people in the building,” he said. “There is a respiratory element for some of our kids with certain disabilities, and they’re all more vulnerable.”

Brownsville Elementary students with special needs worked with teaching assistants in the kindergarten classrooms this fall. Photo: Lisa Martin.

A point of emphasis for Croll’s students is ritual. “Part of the reason these students were invited back was because they are unable to sit for long durations,” he said. “Kids with disabilities like autism really need that ‘school schedule’ that is sometimes difficult to establish at home, where they’re used to just going to their room if they want. We work on things like coming in and putting your backpack away, and we practice mask-wearing as much as we can.” Even with the practice, he said, “I can’t think of any of my students that I could say are able to wear a mask all the time.”

“What makes me nervous is the unknown,” said Croll. “[Before the pandemic], if a kid got a bloody nose, then normally we would just get a napkin and go to the nurse, but now it’s bigger deal. In elementary school we have skinned knees and bloody noses and nasty coughs and that’s expected, but I don’t know how it will be when everyone comes back.” Watching the experience of in-person learning for his own students, he can appreciate both the desire to reopen schools and the risks involved. “I think it’s really important that we all try to see both sides and not get locked in.”

School Plans Refined 

Design work continues on the Crozet Elementary School (CRES) expansion project, even as the school building’s original design garners state-wide accolades. CRES’s VMDO-created design recently won an American Institute of Architects Virginia 2020 “Test of Time” award, only the second school in the history of the award to win. (The other was Scottsville Elementary, also designed by VMDO). The award recognizes “architectural design of enduring significance” and the AIA lauded the CRES project in the organization’s “longstanding quest to recognize quality school buildings uniquely suited to their place.”

An aerial view of the proposed Crozet Elementary expansion project’s new playground. Courtesy VMDO.

VMDO architect Ken Thacker updated the School Board at its October 8 meeting on the design phase of the project, which is two-thirds complete and has recently undergone a few changes. “We are planning for a new replacement kitchen rather than renovating the existing kitchen, which will allow construction to take place during the school year,” said Thacker. “We’ve also added a pre-K classroom for that program, and have pulled the new wing closer to the school to further protect the stream buffer of Parrot Branch.”

Thacker said his team has engaged in intricate and detailed planning to ensure construction can take place during the school year and the two summers (2021 and 2022) that bracket the 15 months of construction. “The plans have been exhaustively reviewed by an eight-member design committee, which consists of cabinet level educators, building services leadership, and the school’s principal, so it has the greatest possible impact on Crozet learners and value for county budget stewards,” he said.

There will be a new playground expansion which includes nature-based play spaces and a walking track, and the building design includes proposed environmental graphics and wayfinding themes in the interior. Thacker also highlighted several aspects of the plan that focus on environmental sustainability. “We’ve made the new building as compact an addition as we can,” he said, “and though three stories seem unconventional for an elementary school, it takes advantage of the hillside to tuck another story underneath to minimize its impact on the beautiful campus and to save on heating and cooling costs. Every classroom that’s new will face south to harvest daylight for naturally lighting those rooms.”

A rendering of Crozet Elementary’s proposed new academic wing to the right of the existing main building. Courtesy VMDO.

Thacker and the committee are particularly excited about a new geothermal heating and cooling system—the first of its kind to be installed in an Albemarle county school—which will use the ground as a source for heating and cooling year-round instead of the current oil-fired system. “It’s free energy using a system with virtually no moving parts that’s extremely quiet,” said Thacker, “and the payback period is three to four years, which is pretty astounding.”

The design team continues to struggle with the project’s construction budget, established several years ago as part of the county’s CIP budget. The most recent cost estimate is $16.7 million, which is a little over 1 million over budget (or about seven percent). “Several oversights [in the original budget] have impacted our design work,” said Thacker. “While we’ve endeavored to find cost-saving solutions at every step, the current design exceeds the original area target by over 5,000 square feet, which alone adds $1.5 million to the cost.”

The design committee has decided that further cuts will detrimentally affect the design and scope of the project, but there are still reasons to be optimistic when it comes time to bid the project out to contractors, says Thacker. “Our cost estimators are well-known to be conservative, and our understanding is that contractors will be hungry for work next year. On bid day we will offer ‘add alternates,’ [a la carte items such as the entry canopy, bus canopy, auxiliary sports field, and supplementary landscaping] which can be included if pricing is favorable. We’re told by contractors that the construction market should remain soft for a while, and they encourage us to bid the work on schedule [in January] if possible.” 

COVID-19 has added uncertainty to the project’s funding, which at this point is only appropriated for the design portion. “If the project is to remain on schedule, the current fiscal year capital budget (FY21) would need to be amended so that construction can begin this spring,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, COO of the school division. “A Capital Improvement Plan Advisory Committee (including representatives from both the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission) will be meeting next month to make amendment recommendations to both boards. With that recommendation, the School Board can decide at their December business meeting whether they want to request an amendment to the FY21 capital budget. The BOS would then be the final decision maker on that request.” 

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