Breaking Down Walls Just to Throw Them Back Up

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New walls in the E-wing separate one previously open concept room into two separate classrooms. (Photo: Jack Steenburgh)

By Jack Steenburgh
Senior, Editor-in-Chief

Last year, it was rumored that the parking lot was getting an extension with more spots after years of advocacy from students. Instead, when students returned there were renovations to the bathrooms, a new wall in the E-wing, and fresh paint in the cafeteria. In 2016, many teachers felt a similar shock as they came back to school. Unbeknownst to the them, four classrooms had collapsible walls installed for a new World Studies program. The new classrooms emulated the structure used for the longstanding American studies program, combining history and English classes with retractable walls.

“I was unaware that they were doing major renovations to our classroom until the end of June,” said Mr. Bledsoe, a history teacher who worked in the American Studies model but had one of the rooms that was renovated over the summer in 2016. 

For Bledsoe and other teachers, this disrupted the crucial time before the school year began. Uncertainty about when the new rooms would be finished meant that teachers had no clue what to prepare for on the first day.

Despite the short notice and slow completion, World Studies teachers recall the program as a success. Dottie Akers-Pecht, a language arts teacher who taught World Studies, said, “It was really helpful to have interdisciplinary programs where what you’re learning in history is supported in English.”

Unfortunately, soon after its inception, the program was killed along with its older counterpart, American Studies. After the pandemic started in 2019, the program was deemed no longer viable by the county in 2020. 

As with their start, the ending of these programs didn’t involve teachers. Bledsoe said, “I wasn’t talked to about it at all. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I don’t know many teachers who were spoken to at all about this.”

Although the folding walls still offer greater flexibility, the money spent just four years earlier to establish the program was no longer serving its intended purpose. In 2016, a bond referendum was passed by the people of Albemarle providing tens of millions in funding for Albemarle County Public Schools. Millions were allocated to updates for the WAHS building. At some point, it was decided that these renovations would be given to the science department.

In the beginning, science teachers were excited and involved. Mrs. Karpovich, a chemistry teacher, said, “The entire science department was actually asked to go out and visit high schools across the state to… look at classroom laboratory spaces, or combined classroom/laboratory spaces.”

Karpovich said that the science teachers had made a list of requests and a presentation for the county. She said, “Our presentation and lists of wants and don’t wants—pretty much all of our recommendations were ignored.” 

The county’s vision had been a large, open classroom that supported co-teaching scenarios. Three classrooms and a hallway were all formed into the tri-lab, and additional construction yielded two open classrooms on both levels of the E-Wing.

The model of multiple lessons going at once was used in the E-wing and tri-lab classrooms to little success. Teachers recall the model as clunky and hurting students. Karpovich said, “It was just distracting. It just meant that there was always a significant amount of background noise for students.”

Karpovich also recalled more students acting out during class. “Those are the classes where we saw significant behavioral issues,” she said, “as well as [hurting] students who were more prone to not having academic success in the classroom.”

Just as teacher recommendations had foreseen, the rooms were not useful in practice. Regardless, teachers figured out ways to teach and use the rooms to their full potential.

Recently, though, teachers have had some administrative help. Jennifer Sublette, WAHS’s principal, was left with these issues from her predecessors and is well aware of the positive and negative aspects of these classrooms. “I think it is interesting to have a few spaces in the school that have greater flexibility,” Sublette said, “because everything else … It’s just very much homogeneous.”

Sublette also recognizes the shortcomings of the rooms. “In some of the scheduling last year, we had entirely different disciplines sharing the second floor of the E-Wing. That was really challenging because then there’s not a reason for the other 25 people that are there.”

Working with teachers, Sublette has facilitated some greater success in the spaces. Karpovich cited Sublette’s efforts scheduling as crucial to her being able to effectively teach in the space.

Sublette also addressed problems with renovations to the open-concept room in the lower E-wing. Sublette and the science department together deemed that specific open-concept unnecessary and erected a wall that split the classroom into two separate spaces.

The open classroom model is not being completely abandoned, according to Sublette. But, to the teachers’ delight, Sublette seems to have broken the pattern of surprising teachers with renovations by involving them in the process. 

Although value has been found in these renovations as they have aged, it’s also true is that a maximum of two classes worth of students end up using the tri-lab at any given time. Indeed, there is often only one class worth of students in the tri-lab, which was three classrooms formerly. Although this allotment is definitely the best thing for students, in a time when WAHS has had to add external buildings, like the Pods, it raises questions about whether there should have been more planning about the renovations in the first place.

Compounded with other renovations for the World Studies program, and changes like those to the ACPS academy system, the Tri-Lab renovations highlight a problem with foresight in Albemarle County. Repeatedly, money has been allocated to programs, like the Tri-lab, that jostle teachers around or have foreseeable problems. These programs take little to no input from the teachers. Then, after teachers spend time and energy to make new programs or spaces work, they are abandoned. 

Avoiding redundancy is something that Albemarle County needs to focus on in the future for the benefit of students and teachers. Efforts like Sublette’s, working with teachers, who are the experts on what works in the classroom, have been shown to help at WAHS. Within future innovations, incorporating teachers more in the renovation process could reduce redundancy and increase productivity. 

The Crozet Gazette is partnering with the editors of Western’s student newspaper, The Western Hemisphere, to share the work of student journalists with the wider community. 

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