Learning in Our Schools: Community Support is Essential

Featured

Spring is one of the busiest times of the year in our schools. Competitions abound; regional and national science fairs, Destination Imagination, National History Day, athletic teams,wahs-hd-10 and so much more. Drama students are putting final touches on performances or smiling because their the performance is a wrap. Music students are preparing for spring performances and the Fine Arts Festival at Fashion Square Mall has been viewed by thousands of community members and finally taken down after a month-long exhibition.

 

 

Our elementary schools have many spring evening activities planned involving students; Art Shows, Quest Fests, STEAM fairs to Design and Make nights. It’s a time for field trips to museums and historical sites such as Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Williamsburg. The promahe-trip-8s are over and our seniors anticipate their final walk across the stage, a day when they are still Albemarle students in one moment and graduates of our schools in the next.

All of the fine work accomplished by our young people occurs because of partnerships that result in the enriched opportunities we support in our schools. We celebrate all the positive accomplishments of our young people and value the partnerships we have with parents, community volunteers in our schools, and business community contributors who help make our schools wonderful environments for our children.

dar11

DAR volunteers at Stone Robinson Elem

Teachers work hard every day to engage our learners in activities that challenge them to think deeply as they problem-solve, plan and conduct research, defend arguments, communicate through a variety of forms of media, learn to live a fit and healthy lifestyle, create, and develop skills of logical and analytical reasoning. This does not happen by chance. This work occurs because of our division’s focus on Lifelong Learning Competencies, skills, dispositions, and knowledge work that will be useful not just in school but well after our young people have moved into adulthood.

beeteam-4 I’ve had the recent experience of watching a group of Monticello High School students research, develop, and implement a plan to bring bee hives to the school grounds as a part of their environmental sciences studies.

 

 

3-sre-projFourth graders at Stone-Robinson Elementary demonstrated a variety of projects they constructed from cardboard illustrating potential and kinetic energy.

 

 

1-nsbe

Just last week, National Society of Black Engineers Junior members from Burley Middle School recently showcased for parents and staff their projects to build robots and write app programs.

 

 

2-youth-summitThe capstone project for teen representatives from all of our regional high schools occurred during the TomTom Festival when students from city, county, and private schools attended a Youth Summit planned and run by students for students to share their talents, big ideas for the future of school, and entrepreneurial pitches for projects they dream to make come true.
catec-auto-5In a visit to CATEC, automotive students shared their work under the hood and talked about their futures. I listened as one senior, a young woman, described her enlistment in the Navy with hopes of becoming an aviation mechanic. She informed me that this would be a path to a wonderful career, one that she sees as a positive step in her life after high school.

In every visit I make to our schools, I have the pleasure of talking with students and teachers as they share their work with me. I am amazed at the performances, the art work, the challenging projects, and the competitive accomplishments of our students. They are doing so much more rigorous work than occurred in high school fifty or thirty or even fifteen years ago and our students graduate in greater numbers, attend more highly competitive colleges and universities, and provide community service through social good projects in higher numbers than ever recorded in our community.

This doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because education matters in Albemarle County. And, even as our community grows more diverse, our students continue to thrive with support from volunteers, excellent teaching staff, and their parents.  Not every school in America is fortunate to be situated in a such a community. We are and I do not take that for granted.

ahs-orch-7 wahs-play-6 art-6

 

Teachers Matter Most

Featured

December is a busy month in our schools from wonderful holiday programs to routine activities that engage children in deep learning. I am fortunate to visit our schools and see the amazing work accomplished by our young people and the teachers who create opportunities to involve learners. Learning planned by our teachers challenges children’s imaginations, supports them to solve complex problems, engages them to seek and use deep knowledge of content and make interdisciplinary connections, and encourages them to sustain curiosity and pursue learning that is of intrinsic interest.

dec blog 2On a Sunday afternoon, I recently watched Scottsville fifth graders perform The Little Prince at Victory Hall, a community arts center in downtown Scottsville. The children enchanted the audience as they shared the story, with a parent-constructed set that was just perfect for the show. The sophisticated concepts in The Little Prince were beautifully interpreted by the children. I loved the introduction by Principal Sharon Amato- Wilcox who reminded us of one of many important lessons in this children’s story:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince 

Drama teachers Fay Cunningham, Madeline Michel, and Caitlin Pitts recently hosted student drama teams from our four high schools (AHS, MoHS, WAHS, and Murray High) to participatIMG_2110e in a fast-paced “script to performance” master class, Wired, in which students began the morning writing a script from scratch and performing that evening. I had the chance to watch student teams participate in a feedback session with the teachers and afterwards we chatted with the students about how coaching and guiding drama students gives them immediate, actionable feedback on their progress which they love about drama. One student commented that he wished school could be drama class all day long every day.

dec blog 8A visit with a Sutherland Middle School science teacher, Bryan Anderson, also provided insight into the interesting work that he does with students in an outdoor environmental garden area. It’s amazing to see that some typical garden plants such as broccoli  are still producing due to the unseasonably warm weather. His recycled soda bottle irrigation system seems to work well – and the rabbits who live in a hutch nearby and are a great source of fertilizer. It’s not every day you see kids inspecting cotton in a school garden with the intention of sharing it with their social studies teacher as an artifact from early agricultural days- but Brian and his kids are willing to try out all kinds of experiments in their schoolyard garden.

This past Saturday, Stone-Robinson Elementary staff hosted a #girlsgeekday program. I visited and saw around 60 elementary-aged girls working with volunteer staff, mostly women, including a number of teachers. The girls were figuring out how to program Lego robots, use basic code, design and build structures to withstand high winds, create animation videos, and program with visual patterns to control Ozobots. Watching our elementary girls work with great delight on STEM projects all Saturday morning reinforced how important it is to support all of our young people to see themselves as capable designers, builders, engineers, programmers, mathematicians, and creators. A takeaway? when children find learning interesting, they are intrinsically motivated to keep going.

dec blog 7dec blog 3dec blog 5

 

I also found out this past weekend about an AHS jazz band accomplishment. After completing and submitting a jazz tape made with support from the A3 House music studio in the Albemarle High Learning Commons, our jazz musicians were notified that they had been selected as one of twelve high school jazz bands across the nation to attend the prestigious Savannah Jazz Festival this coming April. Our AHS jazz musicians are some of the very best in the nation under the direction of Greg Thomas and this video shows why they are considered as such.

Finally, I’m proud that Albemarle County Public Schools was recently notified of its #5 school division Niche ranking in Virginia. Notably, our teaching staff received the highest rating possible which corroborates my belief that our teachers advance learning in powerful ways and that’s recognized by parents and students alike. While I want all of our young people to have excellent, modern facilities and top-notch learning tools, I also know that teaching quality makes the real difference in a child’s success in school. Commitment to learning quality must supersede other investments. Recruiting, selecting and developing the best educators we can find has led to our recognition of our young people and those who serve them well.

Schools matter. Learning tools matter. Teachers matter most.

IMG_1474

 

Why Arts? A Learning Commitment to Our Young People

Featured

balloons2I had an opportunity to spend time in Stephanie Helvin’s room recently at Stone-Robinson Elementary. Stephanie teaches art. Watching her second graders as they began work on creating line drawings of hot air balloons, I noted that she introduced them to science, math, and new vocabulary as she shared with them how to turn overlapping circles into dimensional drawings.

Why arts education? In a day and age when conversations about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in pK-16 curricula and workforce preparation dominate education, what makes the arts still relevant? In many public schools across the United States, art room doors have closed, teachers have been let go, and art time has shifted to academic time.

Why then have we worked in Albemarle Schools to purposefully sustain a budget commitment to the arts despite current trends across the United States to slash arts from schools’ offerings?

As Kai Kight, Stanford graduate, says, “Innovation happens at intersections.” The capability to innovate directly affects our potential to ensure a thriving economy and culture across our communities. Arts education builds innovative thinking.

Our division has a critical commitment to educating young people well so they will be ready for their future as citizens, lifelong learners, and employers and employees. We believe this  comes from a well-rounded education to sustain learners’ creativity as well as to build their analytical skills across the curricula. Arts do both.

For example, a recent video shared with me by Albemarle High orchestra teacher Carrie Finnegan captured the neuroscience underpinnings of how playing a musical instrument benefits your brain and impacts both linguistic and mathematical functions:

We also understand that learning through arts will build deep cognitive learning in young students:

“The arts are not just expressive and affective, they are deeply cognitive. They develop essential thinking tools — pattern recognition and development; mental representations of what is observed or imagined; symbolic, allegorical and metaphorical representations; careful observation of the world; and abstraction from complexity.” (How the Arts Develop the Young Brain, Sousa)

Our fabulous arts teachers across the county’s schools understand the importance of their role to build this deep learning among children by keeping creativity alive as our learners move through school. Andrew Sherogan, Meriwether Lewis Elementary, and Molly Foster, Hollymead Elementary, are two of our visual arts teachers who routinely share that message in their blogs as they profile children engaging in our arts programs through project-based learning.

stem2We are not alone in our commitment to putting the A from arts into our contemporary focus on STEM.  We see the value in STEAM just as top universities do, including our own University of Virginia.

President Teresa Sullivan and actor Kevin Spacey described this  at the recent UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts:

“The University’s arts curriculum inspires creativity, innovation and discovery, while giving our students across all disciplines opportunities to integrate the arts into their U.Va. experience.” (Sullivan)

“We have this system that we call STEM, to teach sciences and technologies. Now there are a lot of schools who are adding an ‘A’ and calling it ‘STEAM.’ ‘A’ is for arts,” Spacey said. “I think it’s incredibly important because while math, science and technology are hugely important, if we leave behind a young person’s imagination or creativity, I think they won’t have as full a life.” (Spacey)

We realize in Albemarle that young people draw upon arts skills to help them design, build, engineer, produce as well as use math, science, engineering and technology competencies – whether creating an electric guitar or 3-D printing a prosthetic hand. The renowned WAHS robotics teams use a multitude of integrated skills essential to their design process. It’s not just their engineering minds at work. There’s a wealth of creativity embedded throughout their design decisions.

Kai Kight, graduate of of Stanford University, certainly understands the value of integrating the arts across the curricula while sustaining a passion for “arts for arts sake.” So do engineering professors. One said to me recently on a tour of our schools that a keen grasp .. of “spatial thinking helps our young people excel as they enter higher levels of math from trigonometry to advanced calculus.”

Arts are as important today as they have ever been in human history. Arts opportunities engage learners’ interests and inspire careers as well as a lifetime of personal enjoyment. It’s why I’m committed to arts education for all students we serve in our schools.