High school students in Albemarle could soon have the chance to dive into a new learning experience — one that will not only match their interests better but also prepare them better for jobs.
That experience would include the chance to pick from one of 16 career learning communities — a revamped version of the current academies — and a range of pathways about topics such as finance, graphic design or architecture and construction.
“It’s really about choice,” said Jay Thomas, the division’s director of secondary education and one of the plan’s architects. “And when you find something you choose, it’s about being able to go a little bit deeper in it.”
This ambitious plan, expected to launch in fall 2023, started as a way to address capacity issues at two of the county’s high schools and evolved into a way to give students more opportunities to explore their interests while maintaining achievement standards.
Following a years-long conversation about the needs of the division’s high schools, the School Board decided on the center model in 2017 to accomplish those goals and avoid building a new high school, which could cost more than $100 million. By building one or more high school centers, the division could have more space for high schoolers as well as facilities designed with a flexible future in mind.
If funded, a standalone high school center could be built by 2023 and is is expected to cost $32 million.
The board recently reviewed the decision to implement the center model along with the study that led to it. After a lengthy work session, board members reiterated their support for the overarching plan, which also includes renovations to the existing comprehensive high schools — Albemarle, Monticello and Western Albemarle — estimated to cost at least $36 million.
However, School Board members want to make sure that all high school students will have access to the suite of specialized programming that the division wants to launch in the fall 2023 when current eighth-graders are sophomores.
The new programs will be similar in structure to existing academies within the division, such as the Math, Engineering and Science Academy; however, the board and division are seeking to address issues of access that have troubled the academies. Previously application-only, the academies included about 16% of high school students and their enrollments didn’t match the division’s overall demographics.
In addition to planning a new center and the program changes, the School Board has already changed grading practices, required students to take a seminar course as freshmen, and capped the number of Advanced Placement classes a high schooler can take at nine, among other changes related to the redesign.
The second center, to be built near Monticello, would have space for up to 400 students a day. MESA and the Health and Medical Science Academy would move to Center II, under the current plan. Funding for the project was put on hold during the pandemic, but building the center is a top priority for the School Board.
On Tuesday, members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors will meet to start discussing the capital budget and which projects should receive funding.
To figure out if the model can work for all students, the division created Center I to test the model. At the high school center, which opened in 2018 in leased space at Seminole Place near Costco, students take electives in the pathway of their choice with the option to select from game design, cybersecurity and media communications, akin to a less-intensive college major. They can also round out their schedule with English, Government and dual-enrollment courses. Students don’t have to meet any requirements in order to attend Center I.
Center 1 cannot be the sole center or solution. Up to 150 students can attend Center I a day, and this year, Albemarle County has 4,318 high school students. While enrollment grew during pandemic, with 71 students, it is still less than half capacity. The center started with 21 students in its first year.
Center I Director Michael Craddock said his experience shows the model can work, though he’s still working to improve the percentages of participating students of color.
Under the new plan, the division would go from having four academies to 16 learning communities throughout the high schools and other school facilities each of which have career pathways that students can choose from such as finance, graphic design or architecture and construction. Additionally, the model would change from a four to three-year program.
The pathways, designed to be three-year program, are essentially a set of courses and are grouped under the career learning communities, which would function similar to the current academies. However, the pathways are designed to be flexible, so students aren’t locked in and can focus on the areas that match their interest.
For example, in the hospitality and tourism career learning community at Albemarle High School, students can choose one of three pathways: lodging, travel and tourism; recreation, amusement and attractions; and restaurant, food and beverage services, according to a draft document. More details about the communities and broader redesign will be released to families in the coming months.
The learning communities will be spread across Albemarle’s three comprehensive high schools, the Community Lab School, the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, Center I and Center II. Transportation will be provided to the learning communities, though students will still attend a base school and have access to extracurriculars at that school.
Learning communities are designed to give students more learning opportunities as well as to better prepare them for life after high school.
“For me, it comes down to one key thing, why wouldn’t we provide opportunities for kids to explore things in a safe environment, a high school,” Thomas said.
Educators envision that the first year of a pathway would focus on foundational skills in that field while juniors and seniors would have more “exploration opportunities,” such as an internship, said Katina Dudley, a lead instructional coach in the division.
“With a goal of ‘all right, I’m going to graduate and I’m going to continue to be interested in this or I have learned that I’m not interested,’” Dudley said. “I think there’s just as much value to both of those experiences.”
In the next year, teachers will work together to determine the courses and curriculum for each pathway.
Inside Center I
About 40% of students attending Center I this year are from Western Albemarle High School, the highest of any of the high schools.
Craddock was named the center’s first director in spring 2019, and he quickly expanded programs and formalized the course structure. Initially, Center I provided space for a handful of seniors to work on capstone projects under the guidance of one faculty member. In fall 2020, the Information and Communications Technology Academy opened at Center I, though all students were initially learning remotely because of the pandemic.
Craddock said he settled on the IT focus because students were interested in the field but the county didn’t have many offerings in that area.
“We looked at what students wanted, and IT was a glaring thing,” he said. “To be a school district this size and not have any cybersecurity programming. You go anywhere in Virginia and throw a dart at the board and there’s a school district that has a full cybersecurity operation up and running.”
The state department of education does not appear to publicly track cybersecurity programs by school.
Students can take classes at Center I starting as sophomores.
“What we aim for is, if they’re with us for three years, that they are leaving with a certification that matters,” Craddock said.
With an industry-recognized certification from a pathway, Craddock said students should be able to start at an entry-level job in the respective industry and “be ready to go.
In addition, Craddock said that the center is well-designed to help students planning to attend college be more competitive because they’ll have the chance to take more control of their learning and demonstrate their time management skills and project management skills.
Next year’s group of seniors will put this theory to the test after spending three years at Center I.
Craddock said he’s gearing up for a big influx of students next year and planning a series of recruitment events to show students what the facility has to offer. To hit an enrollment target of 250, he would need to recruit 125 new students. About 90% of students continued on at Center I from last school year, which was heartening for Craddock.
About 75% of the students attending Center I this year are white, which is slightly less than last year. However, more Black and Hispanic students also opted for Center I compared with last year. Division-wide, about 65% of students are white.
“We’re getting more representative over the years and I think that’s good,” he told board members. “I don’t think these are satisfying results. We’re not a representative population of Albemarle County Schools yet and I feel like we can get there.”
Additionally, 76% of the students are male, according to a presentation. Craddock attributes that to the IT focus of the center and said that the imbalance is something his team is working on.
The academies also have historically been whiter than the division overall.
Last year, the Center I teachers held virtual sessions on Fridays to give students a chance to experience the classes firsthand, which Craddock said helped with recruitment. This year, he’s hoping to bring students to Center I for more hands-on experiences.
As part of recruitment, Craddock told board members that he’s working to ensure the center’s demographics match the division’s overall enrollment numbers, though that’s an ongoing issue.
To bring in more students of color, Craddock said he and the Center I team are planning to visit different neighborhoods and hold in-person events.
“We do have a lot of neighborhoods within walking distance that have a diverse population,” Craddock told board members.
The team also is working with an equity specialist and through the process to earn a micro-credential in culturally responsive teaching, Craddock said.
Recruitment for a facility like Center I relies heavily on word-of-mouth among students and relationships with students and school counselors, he said, given his conversations with students.
“That word of mouth is getting out there about the experience that students are having here and the positive experience that they’re having,” he said. “We expect that as we continue to grow.”
Board member Kate Acuff she has been concerned about whether students would travel has been one of her concerns.
“We’ve had significant growth notwithstanding the pandemic,” she said. “Students are going and they are going from all over the county. It’s not demographically where we want it to be, but it’s moving in that direction.”
Other board members are not so sure. Katrina Callsen said she had “serious reservations” with the mode, from transporting students to make sure that all students benefit from the centers.
“Center I is new and shiny, and it’s such small numbers that you can kind of really do some really tailored strategies to try to get it where you want it,” she said.
Callsen said she thinks CATEC would be a better comparison to determine whether a future Center II would work. CATEC’s enrollment has been a concern for board members. The center is jointly managed by the Albemarle and Charlottesville school boards.
This year, 295 students are participating in CATEC programs and the capacity is 450 students.
“CATEC I think of as a center that has already existed that we have not done well at,” Callsen said. “… We’ve had it for decades, and we don’t have it where we want it.”
Board member Judy Le said she shared some of Callsen’s reservations.
“In terms of whether it can support transformative and equitable resources for all given what we’ve seen in the past,” Le said. “I agree that with a small sample size … it’s easy to pull certain numbers and make it look a little closer to representative.”