Chapter 2009-10: Celebrating Learners and Learning

Each year completes a chapter in the history of Albemarle County Public Schools. In the last two weeks of school our young people, staff, and parent community have engaged together in activities that bring this school year to a close. A multitude of events showcase our learners’ project-based learning work as well as athletic and artistic skills. It’s so worthwhile to see our young people demonstrate in a variety of ways that they are learning far more in our public schools and family homes than can be measured through the approximately 80,000 grade level Virginia Standards of Learning tests and other standardized tests that we administer annually.


“Success is not a six figure salary.  It’s about finding something you love and doing it well.” WAHS graduation speaker

High school seniors graduated from Albemarle High, the Ivy Creek School, Monticello High, Murray High, and Western Albemarle High in the space of a few recent days. Our graduates will attend two- and four-year colleges and universities across the country, including 19 of the top 25 colleges in our nation, offsetting college costs for their families with over three million dollars in scholarships. The CATEC Completers Ceremony also provides a clear picture that many of our graduates have acquired industry certifications and licenses that allow them to enter specialized careers in areas such as automotive repair, nursing assistance, and medical tech fields.  Many CATEC completers will continue pursuing college pathways, having already accrued community college credits as well. One of the most important graduation ceremonies, Board members and I attend is one that few attend or know occurs. We run Post-High for young people who have significant disabilities and who need extra time beyond their senior year to further develop workforce and lifespan readiness skills that allow them to be as independent as possible. This year, graduates from our post-high program will work at Martha Jefferson Hospital, local businesses, and Worksource Enterprises.  As all our graduates enter the next stage of their life’s journey, whether it is the workforce, the military, or two-year and four-year colleges and universities, we hope they hold true to our vision that they embrace lifelong learning, excel in all they do, and own their future.

Learning Beyond the Virginia SOLs

Other culminating events across the county over the last two weeks offer insight into the capabilities of our young elementary learners.  I have had opportunity to hear Stone-Robinson “rising up” fifth graders sing an original song, “Piedmont,” that they collaboratively composed as fourth graders. At Baker-Butler Elementary, third graders performed an original musical, “Zumo,” using Orff instruments and African drums to accompany singers. First graders from Scottsville Elementary came to Lane Auditorium where they shared their original books with adult reading buddies. I was delighted to hear their stories and look at illustrations of animals they had chosen to individually research. No matter where I have been on visits across western, southern and northern feeder pattern schools when I chat with learners, teachers, principals, and parents the evidence that the work in which our young people engage far exceeds the minimum specified in SOL content standards. The portfolio of work compiled by our young people includes original documentary and narrative films, robotics solutions to complex problems, well-developed research projects that blend technology applications with deep knowledge development, original choreography for high school musicals, and civic presentations to community organizations.

No better representative examples exist anywhere in the United States of high-powered student work than in our schools. The citizenship action projects at Monticello High, the invasive plant species study conducted by seventh graders at Sutherland Middle School, digital fabrication lab constructions by Crozet Elementary students and data mapping projects in the nationally recognized GIS class at Western Albemarle all represent such work. Every school in every feeder pattern has examples of project-based work that results in our young people acquiring some of the workplace, content, thinking, and technology skills that Virginia’s employers and our college educators say are needed. Even that classic end-of-the year activity, the “field day” teaches an important skill, teamwork—listed fifth in a current survey of Virginia employers’ essential skills for all 21st century employees. Our young people who receive ample opportunities to function in a team, across all curricular areas, learn something that in the past was reserved mostly to participants in extra-curricular and athletic programs.

Our middle schools also offer an amazing range of project-based learning options from film festivals at both Sutherland and Jack Jouett Middle Schools to the annual National History Day, Piece by Peace, and “green” solutions project work at Henley Middle School. Walton Middle School has opened the door for its students and staff to learn any of the world languages offered through Rosetta Stone – from the more common Spanish to the less common Chinese.  At Burley Middle School, student leaders and arts performance groups have created a powerful, ongoing relationship with the Burley High School Alumni and Varsity Club organizations, teaching all Burley students about their shared history with the accomplished graduates of Burley High, an all-Black high school Albemarle’s segregation history.

Customized Learning

Albemarle has a number of customized options available to young people. Our schools are encouraged to develop an identity that goes beyond the established curricular programming.  Some examples include Cale Elementary’s strong focus on project-based engineering that parallels Greer Elementary’s work to embark upon opportunities for students to explore any discipline through the concept of “expedition.” Murray, Meriwether Lewis and Agnor-Hurt elementary staff are embedding international studies units into their curricula as a way to expand learning horizons. Stony Point Elementary is known for an arts-infused approach to all curricular areas while Broadus Wood and Brownsville have pursued inquiry learning across content areas, with focus on environmental themes. Red Hill and Yancey Elementary staff use iPods, laptops, and Smartboards as technology learning tools that offer students opportunities to accelerate learning, including connecting with each other on common project work through the Internet. Woodbrook Elementary has developed a fabulous after-school enrichment and intervention program, Edge, to extend learning options for the young people serve there. At the same time, Hollymead Elementary continues to offer one of the strongest academic programs in Virginia, being recognized for the Governor’s Excellence in Education Award.

Two charter schools serve young people from Albemarle County, Murray High School and the Community Charter Middle School which uses an arts-infused curricula. Murray High School has been in operation since 1988 and is the first nationally recognized Quality Public High School certified through the William Glasser Institute. Murray students engaged this year in a long-distance learning relationship with the Mira Pal School in India, causing our students to occasionally meet at school in the late evening to Skype with their Indian peers in a different time zone.

This year we also opened the MESA Academy at Albemarle High; a space in which teachers and learners together worked as innovation lab specialists in our effort to align the disciplines and skills of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). MESA Students worked in a mostly paperless environment, applying contemporary understandings of the intersection of STEM concepts, skills and knowledge in their studies. The mission of MESA is to serve a demographically representative cross-section of students. We expect to learn from the program how we must shift to a Pk-12 STEM curriculum to ensure all students become a literate citizenry that is important to the innovative future of this country. With the 2010-11 MESA cohort, we will have doubled the numbers of students we expected to enter MESA in its first two years to meet student demand.

Excellence On Stage and On the Field of Play

“While we are done with high school we still have a future of hope. Let’s work together to create sheer beauty.” MoHS graduation speaker

We can only celebrate the significance of an arts learning community that continues to deepen and extend its reach in our schools, despite the economic downturn that has spawned reductions in arts programs across the nation. The Walton Middle School Band joins the ranks of exceptional performers as a national award winner this past spring in competition in Atlanta. The Burley Bearettes girls’ chorus recently returned from performing at the internationally acclaimed Piccolo-Spoleto Arts Festival in Charleston, SC. The AHS Drama Troupe travels to the international juried Drama Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland in July. Audiences were delighted with the Monticello High performance of Fame.  Arts are important not just as a pathway to learning but also because successful nations throughout history have flourished as places where creativity and innovation in the arts intersect with the inventiveness of scientists and mathematicians.

Our young student-athletes also distinguish themselves through excellence on and off the fields of competition. We routinely field male and female championship teams in a wide range of sports as recently exemplified by the state championship girls’ lacrosse team from Western Albemarle. However, our Board, staff and parents also celebrate that our young athletes, almost all of whom will never play college or professional sports, often are selected as exemplars of character and sportsmanship through regional and state awards. This is a measure of the many great coaches who define themselves as teachers of the lessons of life, not just the sport.

Our Educators Make the Difference

Finally, our Albemarle educators represent the highest level of excellence. Their performance is as good as the best that can be found in the state and nation. Across this country, educators are often confronted by media stories of what is not working in classrooms or schools. While not every day is a perfect day in our classrooms or schools either, I believe that our young people and community are fortunate to have the educators we employ in our learners’ corner. In the balance of learning, we want the successes of our young people to far outweigh their failures, but we know that life is about both and our educators work to both challenge and support our young learners.

We live today in what appears to be an increasingly hyper-critical world and often we experience what appears to be a glass-half empty rather than full perspective from those around us,a focus that often feels more divisive than unifying. Our educators, who work late hours and are on call daily in their personal and professional lives, accomplish the highest levels of learning with a more diverse population of young people than have been educated in the history of our community.  Our teachers meet the highest expectations ever set in Virginia for what we call upon them to achieve.  They support our young people to not just become college and workforce ready, but also citizenship ready. They support our young people to learn to use their voices to speak on behalf of others as well as themselves.

“We may bring an end to domestic violence. Silence is dangerous. We must speak up in face of injustice.” WAHS graduation speaker

In ending this year’s chapter in the history of Albemarle County Public Schools, I tip my hat to all the employees of Albemarle County Public Schools who live our Mission every day. Thank you for a job well done.