Spring Updates: From Homework to Henley’s New Fitness Center

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Stay Tuned: Homework Policy Under Consideration

Spring flies by in our schools as we begin the approach to the end of the school year. The days are longer and our learners are out on playing fields until dark and then heading home for family time and sometimes hours of homework.

Because of concerns about the time some students spend on homework, the School Board’s Health Advisory Board (parents and health professionals from our community) requested that the School Board consider changes in policy to more clearly regulate the amount of time students spend on homework on a weekly basis. The Health Advisory Board brought this recommendation forward because of their belief that our students’ overall health and wellness must be supported by adequate nightly sleep, family time, and down time away from school work.

As a result of this recommendation, school staff have been engaged in discussions about homework for well over a year using information homework research, surveys of parents, teachers, and students, and direct feedback from groups such as Parent Council and Teacher Advisory. As analysis of feedback and data are brought to closure, the School Board will consider final recommendations from staff and determine any changes to be made in its current homework policy.

Henley Middle School Fitness Center Opens

In the United States, anyone who follows mainstream media knows that many common adult diseases result from underlying causes that we can control.  As reported by the Presidential Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition, many Americans do not lead a fit and healthy lifestyle and this begins at an early age. While a poor diet is a known culprit, lack of exercise is also a contributor to what some call lifestyle diseases.

Henley gym3On April 25, Henley Middle School celebrated the grand opening of its new “fit for life” fitness center which includes indoor and outdoor areas for gym activities, strengthening and conditioning, and aerobic workouts. After a ribbon cutting by two students, eighth graders demonstrated the different areas to School Board members, community members, staff and local media.

And, how do middle school students describe their new fitness center? Awesome … Challenging … fun … hard… love it ….. Great… really good .. amazing!

Hneley gymPhysical education teachers at Henley envisioned the fitness center as a more effective space in which to teach young people the competencies needed to lead a fit and healthy lifestyle into adulthood. Rather than requesting a second traditional gym to accommodate increased student enrollment, the PE teachers researched and recommended the fitness center concept to staff and architects charged by the Board to address the significant overcrowding of the school’s gym. The current gym has been used to serve the physical education needs of over 800 students even though it was constructed to serve many fewer students.

Henley gym2The Henley fitness center was created at no more cost than building a second gym but allows teachers to engage students in a variety of fitness activities that cannot be accomplished in a traditional gym environment.

A New Year Begins

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The opening of a new school year always brings joy, passion, and excitement to our educators’ work with young people. As I visit each school across Albemarle County, I see brightness captured in our children’s eyes, a quickness to their step as they enter new classrooms, and enthusiasm in their voices as they embrace interesting ideas and questions that challenge them to think. Albemarle educators value our children acquiring the competencies of lifelong learning readiness. When our current pre-schoolers graduate in 2027, we want them to be ready for a world that will be different than the one we know today.

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Kindergarten Spanish Lesson

If any one variable has changed the world over the last decade, most people would say it is technological advances. Whether considering the workforce, the home and community, politics, the economy, or communication media, technology advances have changed the way we cook, drive, work, communicate, entertain, vote, travel, purchase, pay, and learn. From agri-business to engineering, no sector is unchanged.

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Parents and educators alike want our children to be well educated for their century.  We know that despite the advances of technology as learning tools, the quality of teaching remains a vital factor to achieving our dream to unleash the learning potential of every child enrolled in our schools. This means investing in the training educators need to continue to advance and develop skills and expertise.  This summer and on work days before school started, teachers participated in professional training to deepen content knowledge, focus on new curricular standards, and refine performance assessments for use with students during the year.

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Agnor-Hurt Educators Welcome Back Young Learners

This year, four schools – Monticello High and Walton, Burley and Jouett Middle Schools – are using 1:1 learning technologies with certain grade levels. Elementary school educators in every school are working to incorporate “hands-on” learning experiences across the curricula so that young learners have opportunities to create, build, design, and make using traditional and contemporary learning tools.  Cale Elementary continues to pilot bilingual language learning as a pilot in anticipation of expanding second language learning in more elementary schools in the future. Four middle schools – Henley, Sutherland, Walton, and Jouett –  have new learning labs where students will explore topics including advanced manufacturing and project based learning in math. Western Albemarle staff are working this year to design and develop a third academy to be made available to our county high school learners next year – an environmental studies center. Every school has renovated spaces – libraries, cafeterias, art rooms, inquiry labs, technical education, project areas – designed for contemporary learners and learning. At Albemarle High a new writing studio was created as part of the library suite, a space where students can work with peers to improve writing skills and pursue interests in personal writing.

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CATEC Design/Builders

This renewed focus on active learning by our students emerges from the Board’s revised strategic plan, Horizon 2020, which sets in place the Division’s next steps in determining the optimal use of resources, implementation of balanced assessments, expansion of partnerships, and improvement of opportunity and achievement among all learners.

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In identifying new strategic objectives, the Board, educators, parents and community partners who participated in development of Horizon 2020 believe that our young people must graduate from our schools capable and competent to embrace learning across a lifetime, unleashing their potential to pursue career options, post-secondary education, and adult citizenship with all the enthusiasm and excitement they brought with them when they first entered our schools.

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Learning Beyond the Walls: Skype Comes to Band Class

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At Henley Middle School, band director Kate Meier has worked with band director Andrew LaPrade at Burley Middle School to use Skype to “live” broadcast young musicians’ practice of concert pieces –  with the purpose of sharing music feedback with each other. It’s professional learning for the band directors but also a learning opportunity for their middle school students.

In his most recent blog post, Henley principal Dr. Pat McLaughlin describes an administrative observation of how Ms. Meier has taken her young musicians’ practice sessions beyond the band room walls – virtually.

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Lessons We Loved from Henley Middle School 

 Each week in our internal staff newsletter, Jason Crutchfield, our assistant principal, and I try to highlight a staff member who we observed teaching a great lesson.  I think it’s important to begin sharing those lessons out with the community via this blog so that all of you can help us celebrate our incredible staff.  We’ll be starting that this week and hopefully continuing it quite often in the coming year.

Today’s lesson write up comes from Mr. Crutchfield:

“Smile, We See You”

No more poor behavior in band class; students are being watched. That is because Kate Meier and Richard Baritaud have been collaborating in their district wide PLCs’ (Professional Learning Communities) to “broadcast” their performances for each other.

This work began in CAI (the division’s Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction professional development institute) with the development of performance tasks for music groups. Music directors in Albemarle thought it would be a good idea to have their groups perform pieces for each other using sites like SKYPE to observe performances. Students would have a selection to play that they haven’t seen before while another band/orchestra watches remotely from their own school.  The plan is to have students observe and document their assessments of each other using the precise terminology the judges will use during district band assessments.

I was able to observe the trial run in Mrs. Meier’s classroom this past month. She collaborated with the band director at Burley Middle and their symphonic band. Our students were highly energized by the prospects of this lesson. They waited patiently as Mrs. Meier worked out technicalities of the hardware. As they experienced minor tech delays, Mrs. Meier’s patience was the hero of this lesson. Once SKYPE was up and running, Henley’s Symphonic band played their piece. Once complete, Burley’s band members were able to come to the microphone and give feedback using the precise language that their district judges will be using next semester. The process was reciprocated and our students were able to provide accurate and constructive feedback as well.

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… And now more on Virginia’s and Albemarle’s focus on virtual learning development

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Virtual learning often is thought of as a student sitting in front of a computer working through screen pages to read and respond to course content. This may have been true ten years ago, but Albemarle’s contemporary educators are using a variety of virtual learning tools to extend learning connectivity with other educators as well as other young learners inside and outside the school division.

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Skyping with an educational purpose in mind offers such opportunities for learning and our pioneering teachers are trying out these tools.

Last year, students in a Modern Issues in the World course at AHS Skyped with an Egyptologist to engage in dialogue about the push there to democratize Egypt. They compared and contrasted his reactions to how early American revolutionaries might have felt as the American Revolution unfolded. Kindergarteners at Greer, Broadus Wood, and Meriwether Lewis Elementary Schools routinely Skype with each other to share their work in class – their artwork, building structures, math, favorite picture books, and writing.

A New Virtual Requirement: Va High School Students

The Commonwealth of Virginia will require all students entering ninth grade in 2013-14 to graduate with at least one virtual, or online, course on their transcript. Most of our young people already live in a world of virtual social communication and entertainment. Shifting students’ to see and value purposeful learning uses of technologies means educators have to learn to use such technologies for learning as well. This requirement means our Division must training for teachers, tools and access for students, and information to help parents support their children to be successful in such courses, a budget initiative for 2013-14.

Using virtual technologies and tools for learning may challenge some of today’s educators, particularly given the rapid evolution of such technologies. We here in Albemarle County Public Schools are fortunate to have teachers such as Ms. Meiers and Mr. LaPrade helping to lead the way.

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.

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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.

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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.