By Jonah Ratan
You wouldn’t know that nestled deep inside Seminole Place in Charlottesville there is a space that resembles a tech startup more than a high school. But unlike other schools, at Center One you might walk in to find someone’s original music bumping through the place, or see a student in the midst of producing a short film. Here, teachers are harnessing students’ passion for technology and giving them tools to apply their skills in the real world.
Center One is a small satellite high school in the Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) system that focuses on three major career pathways: cybersecurity, game design, and media communications. Students can spend half of the school year studying these pathways starting in their sophomore year, and the topics are even woven in with other core classes taught, such as English and History.
“Cybersecurity is going to grow three times as fast as other career fields,” said Center One director Jeff Prillaman. “Students are getting certifications in cybersecurity that will help them go directly into career fields if they choose to, or help support them if they go to a four-year college.” The Center’s cybersecurity and game design courses are exclusive to Center One within ACPS. “We do have alternate pathways in media—every school has some type of media course selection,” said Prillaman. “The media pathway allows students a thorough curriculum for all things media creation, whether that be making music, creating films, or even writing a book.” All of the pathways are three-year programs.
Center One is the first of four centers planned by ACPS to reduce overcrowding in high schools. Students take a bus from their base schools two full days a week and every other Friday. Center One also allows students to take half of their core classes on site, consisting of English and history, while math and science classes have to be taken at the students’ base high schools.
David Glover is the media communications teacher at Center One. He explained how the three-year structure of the pathways work. “The first year is a structured survey course that introduces students to everything from photography to graphic design, to filmmaking, to video editing, to digital music,” said Glover. “I push students to work on creative projects that give them a viable pathway to collegiate programs based on the work they complete with me in their pathway.”
Where do students go upon graduation? “I have students working professionally with clients as freelance artists, editors, or photographers,” Glover said, “and a large percentage of my seniors have gone on to gain admission to four-year media programs at schools such as USC, VCU, and The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).”
Student Aldie Porter is a rising senior in the media communications pathway. “I think I’ve felt a lot more motivated to be creative here,” said Porter. “Before I was at Center One, I knew I was passionate about filmmaking, but I didn’t feel like I really had the tools to make what was in my head. Now that I’m here, and I have access to all this equipment and a whole bunch of free time, it’s a lot easier to actually put my ideas on paper and make things happen.”
When asked about areas of Center One that could be improved, Porter said, “One thing they could do is try to mix our actual classes with our pathway classes a little more. On its own, studying something for history can be kind of boring, but if I’m doing it to help write a film script, or some other piece of art that I’m passionate about making, I feel more motivated to get the work done.”
The core classes taught at Center One are a bit different in teaching style as compared to base high schools. “Students come to Center One for their interest in the pathways,” said English teacher Amanda Blevins. “This means that I have an easier time accessing students’ interests and passions through my curriculum, because everyone essentially enjoys the same things. I work to intentionally broaden the definition of texts studied in my classroom. Rather than focusing just on traditional novels, I encourage students to analyze films, video games, songs, albums, and even sports icons.”
Media student Porter also observed that Center One works best for students who have self-discipline and can work independently. “The open environment they have here can be fun, but sometimes the way it’s structured can make it hard to be productive,” said Porter. “Last year I found it kind of hard to stay focused at points, just because so many things were going on all around me, and there aren’t a lot of quiet places to stay in when you’re trying to get work done.”
Looking ahead, Prillaman said, “We are expanding electives here. We realize that students like being here, but limiting what they can take harms us in attracting and retaining students. I want to do more to get students out of the building into the real world via mentorships, working with people in the community, and just making that happen at a high level.”
As plans for a Center Two develop, division officials acknowledge other challenges for the center model. In a School Board meeting on October 28, 2021, the board raised questions over Center One not hitting its capacity (71 out of a possible 120 students in 2021-22), especially since the center model was introduced to help alleviate overcrowding in base high schools. (Enrollment at Center One for the 2022-23 school year was 99.) About 40% of the Center One population is drawn from Western Albemarle High School students.
According to ACPS Director of Building Services Lindsay Snoddy, Center Two is planned as a 60,000-square-foot building to be constructed on the Albemarle High School campus with a budget of $36 million already allocated in the county’s capital program. It will be more STEM-focused and have capacity for 400 students. Construction is planned to start in late 2024, and the projected opening is for the 2026-27 school year.