Learners Matter: Building Competencies for a Lifetime of Learning

Learning matters and it happens every day in different ways in classrooms, libraries, on playing fields, and the stage.

MoHS Soloist

Middle School Orchestra:musicality as lifelong learning

This week, seventy-seven seventh and eighth grade students who play violin, viola, bass or cello formed an All County Orchestra, rehearsing all day to perform an evening concert for families and community members. The strings program began in response to the interest of children and parents in expanding the music program offerings for Albemarle County. This occurred at the “turn” of the last century and the journey to the middle school orchestra on stage this week has been rocky and, at times, at risk as budget challenges emerged over the last decade.

About 350 county students today participate in strings programming and the program continues to grow annually. Our accomplished orchestral students now distinguish our county in regional and state competitions. It’s a delight to see this program finally coming into its own as an opportunity for young people to find and use their musical talents as a learning pathway.

Henley Middle School Strings Program

We know that young people who participate in performing arts learn one of the most valued skills in the workforce – teamwork. They also learn to cherish music for a lifetime. Both are worthy of our commitment. The Board and staff, in both evaluation and valuation of strings programming as an elective offering, have continued to support and sustain resources over the past decade so that the program could grow. This week’s concert validated for me why that’s been a sound decision and investment.

AHS duet

Biology students on the water

“What’s the number one threat to Virginia’s watersheds?” This week, a biology class at Monticello High applied their classroom learning about watersheds, human environmental impact, and aquatic ecosystems while paddling canoes around a small pond located next to their school. The teacher, Diane Clark, set up the chance for students to participate in a Green Adventure Project field investigation with teacher-guide, Mike Bruscia. Mike brought enough canoes for the entire class to get out on the water. “Even though you are two hundred miles from the Chesapeake Bay, what we do here in the Monticello High area can negatively impact Virginia’s fishing industry. How can that happen?” The students, still on the banks of the small pond, peppered Mike Bruscia with responses – before we loaded into canoes that sat waiting for us.

“I’m scared.” Many of the class had never before been in a canoe, but after putting on life jackets and trying out paddle strokes each canoe was manned by students who then pushed off on their investigation. They were quick to respond to their guide’s questions with information they’d learned in class.

“Oh, there’s a turtle!” “Yes, you’ll find them here in this shallow area along with wading birds such as the Great Blue Heron.” Overhead, a flock of Canada geese took off and the students sat there silent in their canoes, soaking in the natural world around and above them. By the time they had paddled a few minutes, the fear disappeared and young people soon were experiencing the content they’ve discussed in class. They also practiced a new set of multi-tasking skills -paddling, listening, and observing. “Let’s paddle over to that island and take a look at what’s on it. Sometimes birds will communally roost on an island. Why might they do that?” The paddlers called out responses from temperature to protection from predators.

Mike Bruscia took time to talk about his experiences as a field biologist studying birds,  throwing in background from his Arctic polar bear studies as bonus content. As students paddled, observing turtles, algae, cattails, willows, and Canada geese up close and personal, it was apparent that what the students learned in a schoolroom took on much more relevance and meaning with their immersion in a field investigation. “When you see cattails growing in a man-made pond, it’s a sign that nitrates and phosphates are entering the water. How might that happen?” Their attention drawn to the tall plants near the dam, students began to discuss point sources of potential fertilizer runoff including their own school grounds and neighboring residential areas.

In a debrief after returning to shore, hands shot up in the affirmative when asked, “would you do this again?” This experience won’t be assessed on an SOL biology test, but there’s no doubt that this class will think further about their impact upon a watershed that became real to them as they examined erosion on embankments, silt accumulation in shallow waters, and bio-nutrient indicator plants. On the water, they had a chance to respond independently, work collaboratively, and think critically. Back in the classroom, they’re making movie documentaries about their field studies which will be a part of their assessment of progress. Mike Bruscia shared that he’s worked with a number of middle schools in Albemarle to bring outdoor education to our young people, not just as enrichment but as basic field studies of the science concepts taught in the classroom. Teachers in our schools realize that the passion of young people for learning accelerates when they’re actively engaged. This program provided just that.

Burley High artifacts

The Burley Varsity Club, an alumni group of Jackson Price Burley High, has demonstrated a significant commitment to recognizing talented educators who influenced their lives while they were students who once attended school together in the days of school segregation in Virginia. They have a mission to honor the accomplishments of teachers and administrators who supported them to become successful as professionals in their own right. This past week, they convened to honor Mr. “Sonny” Sampson, director of one of the most successful high school bands in Virginia’s history and Mr. Steven Waters, a former distinguished English teacher and first director of UVa’s Upward Bound program. The Burley Middle School Bearettes sang and the middle school band performed for the Burley High alumni in attendance at the program on Friday night.

Renowned Burley Bearettes

No program of the Burley Varsity Club ever occurs without the presence of their younger counterparts who attend Burley Middle School. This older generation of former students who once walked the halls of Jackson Price Burley High believes it’s important to share stories and historical artifacts with a younger generation of students who today call Burley their school. The Varsity Club and alumni remain valued members of Burley’s learning community and the history they teach to their younger counterparts is an important part of our community’s history and that of Virginia. Our students benefit from the relationships with those who come back annually to celebrate their days as Burley High School students. Their partnership with the school demonstrates their commitment to our Division’s core values for excellence, young people, community, and respect.

Young people need a variety of experiences to build the lifelong learning competencies that will equip them to become positive adult members of their communities and families, successful students in continued post-secondary education, and excellent employees and employers.  Teachers create those experiences inside and outside of classrooms using a variety of resources from canoe paddles to stringed instruments to books and computers. Support for such learning is a hallmark of educators who value critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration as well as the content knowledge necessary for academic success.  Such learners become independent in their work as well as great members of teams, whether in the classroom, in a canoe, or on the stage.

Investing in … Our Children … Our Personnel … Our Community … Our Economy … Our Future.

Each winter, the School Board engages with staff, parents and community members in the annual budget development cycle for Albemarle County Public Schools. It’s a time to reflect upon the importance of specific resources and programs as well as the staff who serve our young people both directly and indirectly. The services provided to learners make a difference in the colleges our graduates attend, the careers they choose to pursue, and, even, their potential to graduate at all.

second grade artist at work

In the first decade of the 21st century, the school division’s budget increased because of multiple factors that are outlined below.

o   The price of fuel more than doubled from 2001 to 2008.

o    Increased square footage of school facilities due to school additions and opening of Baker-Butler  Elementary added maintenance costs

o   Additional federal and state legislative requirements added unfunded or partially funded mandates for staffing and programs. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 significantly increased individual student testing and federal and state reports tied to those requirements.

o   Technology improvements to support and advance administrative and learning objectives resulted in expansion of hardware, infrastructure, and professional training.

o   Growth in student population required increased school staffing to support additional students as well as increased numbers of students with limited English proficiency.

However, the factor responsible for the single greatest percentage of increase to the division’s budget in the first decade of the 21st century has been increasing compensation and benefits for staff so that our school division could recruit and retain staff within a competitive market. This initiative occurred for both Albemarle’s local government and schools between 2004 and 2007.

Over the past four years, the School Board has also worked with building level staff, department heads, and community stakeholders including parents to determine and implement strategies to contain costs. In 2007, an intensive audit of resource deployment and efficiency by Dr. William Bosher of the Commonwealth Education Policy Institute and an external review team was conducted resulting in over 100 recommendations that have been subsequently implemented to reduce operational costs, particularly in support services departments and the Office of Instruction.

This Resource Utilization Study has served as a road map for resource use as the school division and local government have faced significant downward trending of revenues over the past three years. Almost double digit cuts, close to $10M in expenses has occurred to match revenue reductions to our school division’s operational budget.  Our School Board and staff also have significant concerns about the impact of the economical downturn on funds for capital improvements. Some of the key areas of reductions and eliminations over three years that resulted in operational cost savings follow.

o   Purchase of a GPS system and time-clock technologies resulted in efficiencies netting reductions in the transportation department budget of well over $1 M.

o   Energy reduction strategies that have contained utility costs, resulted in reductions of several hundred thousand dollars in building services budget.

o   Departmental administrative staff and school-based support staff reductions have helped preserve classroom teaching positions in schools.

o   Operational reductions have been made to departmental and school budgets.

o   Downsizing of instructional support staff positions in schools and central office to meet the minimum for Standards of Quality requirements set by the General Assembly has resulted in cost savings in personnel expenses.

o   Increasing class size in grades 4-12 and reducing secondary staffing with a change in schedule to an 8-period day.

o   Freezing of salaries for the past two years for all school division employees has contained personnel expenses for salaries and benefits.

Other budget process strategies implemented by the School Board and staff are used to increase the capability of the Board to forecast future needs and potential reductions or redirection of fiscal resources.

o   The Board now uses a biennial budgeting plan (since 2008) rather than an annual plan.

o   Staff has put departmental audits in place to determine where cost efficiency measures can be implemented. The Resource Utilization Study led to this process.

o   An external School Financial Advisory Council has been implemented to provide an external review and ongoing fiscal impact focus for the school division budget. The council is composed of members from the business field and private sector (see page A-12 in budget request executive summary)

o   A program evaluation process will be implemented in the next budget cycle to determine further efficiencies in fiscal resource use.

o   The school division now is included in local government’s five-year planning process and projections.

Our community doesn’t expect Albemarle County Public Schools to be average. No one expects our schools or division to be a  “C” achiever when it comes to comparing our performance against our competitive market, the state, or nation.  Representatives of the business community shared the importance of strong public schools with the School Board in October 2010. They clearly said that the quality of our schools and the depth of our programs make a difference in their capability to recruit, hire and retain employees. The Board of Supervisors has noted in its economic development plan that strong public schools contribute to the economic vitality and quality of life of the community. The Charlottesville- Albemarle Association of Realtors (CAAR) has indicated that the quality of public schools influences the property values and resale turnaround of homes in our county. The public has indicated that public schools represent one of the top investments of the Board of Supervisors in our community and it’s our taxpayers top ranked quality service priority according to local government’s Citizen Survey.

Middle schoolers work on testing wind generator propeller models

Albemarle is one of the most highly educated communities in the United States. Parents who live here or who move here expect top-notch school programs, services, and educators. Our community expects  “A+” schools and our staff bring A+ work to our young people every day. Our graduates go to the very best colleges in the United States (p.A-7 and 8.)  We are top tier in the state in the percentage of students graduating with a college-ready, advanced studies diploma. Our young performing artists are some of the best in the Commonwealth. However, Governor McDonnell has established through the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education that Virginia’s Pk-20 “schooling” status quo is no longer good enough. To secure Virginia’s economic future, our public schools, Pk-20, must continue to increase the competency and numbers of high school graduates as a prerequisite to increasing college graduates by 100,000 in the next fifteen years.

Excellent public schools are a matter of national security, the economic future of the nation, and our democratic way of life.Unfortunately, we are losing ground in supporting our top quality programs as a result of increasing numbers of students and decreasing revenues over the past three years, mostly as a result of budget actions by the Commonwealth.  No one wants to see our schools as average- not our Board of Supervisors, our School Board, our business community, our citizens, our parents, or our educators. We all want the best we can offer our young people. We know their future depends on it.  We know our future depends on it.

Mastering Algebra