Brownsville Elementary welcomed new principal James Kyner this school year, following Jason Crutchfield, who moved over to the school division’s Human Resources department after serving as principal for the last seven years. Though Kyner moved with his family from Colorado Springs to take the job, he’s a familiar face in local school systems.
“After beginning my career in Louisa teaching fourth, sixth, and eighth grades and coaching wrestling and football, I met my wife—who was a kindergarten teacher—and we moved to Charlottesville,” said Kyner. He taught fourth grade at Greenbrier Elementary in the city, then became the assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, eventually circling back to Greenbrier as principal.
“It was kind of neat, because one of the things I had done as a teacher [at Greenbrier] was I rode the bus to and from one of the neighborhoods,” he said. “I became kind of a liaison between that community and the school, and then as principal we created a community center there and did tutoring and other stuff with the community. That, I think, led to the school becoming a Blue Ribbon School and a national Title One Distinguished School. We had tremendous diversity, there was poverty, there were 25% English language learners, but our SOL scores were in the 90s.”
After the second Greenbrier stint, Kyner and his wife and six kids moved to Colorado for seven years as he helmed Springs Ranch Elementary in Colorado Springs. “Colorado is a ‘choice state,’ meaning anybody can go to any school they choose,” said Kyner, “so there I was competing with charter schools only a mile away on each side, and that gives the job a bit more of an entrepreneurial feel. We had to build our community and make people feel like they wanted to be at that school. And the best way I know to do that is to serve the people in your neighborhood really well, and they go out and tell everybody and it goes from there.”
Ultimately it was Kyner’s children—now ages 15 to 25—who pulled the family back eastward. “We all wanted the adventure [out in Colorado], and man, it was fun,” he said. “It was a very different environment—I learned a ton and am so thankful for that opportunity. But then slowly all my kids started gravitating back to Charlottesville [for college, jobs, graduate work], and we wanted to come back to this area too. Even when we lived here before, we used to go to the Crozet Arts & Crafts Festival and Crozet Pizza and enjoy the beautiful mountains—it’s a small town with a lot to offer.”
One of Kyner’s experiences at his last school that he thinks will help him navigate Albemarle’s current environment is his prior work considering and adopting a new reading curriculum for his school. The reading program that Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) has been using for years is not on Virginia’s list of approved programs as it is not sufficiently phonics-based. Kyner said that in Colorado Springs he had hired “really good people,” including reading experts, for his staff, and that his classroom teachers possessed what he considers the number one professional educator quality: humility.
“If you’re humble, if you have a true sense of what you know and what you don’t know, then you’re coachable, and you can learn,” he said, “and learners are way better than knowers. I was fortunate to have people who were learners, but they knew a lot too. We didn’t start that journey by saying, ‘Okay, here are the curriculums we have to choose from,’ we instead said, ‘What makes good reading instruction?’ and that’s what we talked about for months. The program we picked wasn’t actually the favorite of the teachers [on the committee], because we weren’t basing it on what our comfort was, we based it on the question, ‘what do our kids need?’”
Kyner believes that first grade is the critical year for learning to read. “First grade has the most foundational skills where, if you don’t learn those, it’ll make all the rest of the skills hard to learn,” he said. “For math, the critical year is ninth grade and algebra, as students really have to have those algebraic skills down so they ‘know the code.’ Similar to reading, if you don’t know the code—know that this letter makes this sound or these letters together make these sounds and blend together—and then build the vocabulary, then nothing makes sense.”
One of Kyner’s primary tenets is to try to visit every classroom every day. “I’m not at 100% yet, but I try to at least go in, even if it’s just a minute, to every class,” he said. “I’m trying to have my thumb on the pulse of that core instruction piece, because what’s happening in the classroom—that’s the most important thing. Supporting teachers, where they’ve got multiple kids with multiple needs, and figuring out how to meet all of those teachers’ needs, that’s my focus. I think the most important thing is that we help teachers and give them the resources and support to check the kids’ understanding.”
Kyner’s educational worldview is based on the idea of lifting all children to reach their potential. “I think our kids can do more than we think they can,” he said, “so we want to have high expectations for them. And I think having high expectations for everybody—that is where equity comes in. We should have high expectations for everyone. We might scaffold the support for some kids, but you don’t lower the bar in order to get over it. You give the support they need to get over the bar.
“We don’t buy into the Goldilocks principle that [learning should be] not too cold, not too hot, in other words not too easy, not too difficult,” Kyner continued. “‘Just right’ for learning should be a little bit hard, it should feel a little uncomfortable. If I’m getting all the answers right, then I’m not challenged. It doesn’t even have to be complexity, necessarily. Rigor doesn’t mean trickier or next level—instead you can go deeper in your learning. We remember things that go deeper, and we learn even better when we get to the point where we can transfer a concept to a different context.”
To make learning memorable, Kyner says the key is student engagement. “What I find is that many times we do too much of the work for students,” he said. “Who’s doing the heavy lifting in the classroom? It comes down to teacher talk versus student talk.” In this, Kyner is echoing one of the main findings of the recent Bellwether education consulting report, which found that, in many cases, ACPS teachers were carrying the majority of the “cognitive load” and were not organizing instruction around rigorous tasks nor holding students accountable for their learning.
“I’ve found that, particularly with older ways of teaching, kids have holes in their knowledge and the holes are holding them back,” he said. “So, we give everybody that Tier 1 instruction, and at Tier 2 we fill in some holes and keep moving forward—that accelerates learning. We shouldn’t be doing remediation. We want to accelerate. I don’t even like the word remediation because the connotation is that we need to slow down, but if we do that, then how will they ever catch up? I tell my staff that every kid deserves a year’s worth of growth in a year’s time. If they’re below grade level, then we’ve got to figure out ways to do a year and a quarter, a year and a half.
“It’s really about changing practice,” said Kyner. “It’s about connecting with people, and it really starts with the relationships. So, right now, I’m earning the trust of my staff, and I told them I have two non-negotiables. They are that we will make decisions based on kids, and we’ll work together. Everything else is negotiable. I find that most people can live with that.”
Welcome, Principal Kyner!