For Sethaun Nowell, moving from Walker Upper Elementary to Buford Middle School was a challenge. After two years of getting used to new teachers and a new building, he had to move to Buford and do it all over again, with the jump to high school only two years off. In all those changes, he saw his grades drop.
“As hard as I worked to get them back up, they just fell right back down, and I didn’t feel like I had enough strength to pull them back up by myself,” said Nowell, now a sophomore at Charlottesville High School. “I would be left reaching out to people left and right, and it was sad because I thought I could just do it myself.”
At Buford, the classrooms were cramped and the desks sometimes were too small, he said. In fact, Nowell said he opted to sit in the corner of a classroom so he could have a little bit of space around him. Nowell said he doesn’t learn like everybody else, preferring more interactive activities with small groups or one on one time with a teacher.
“It was very uncomfortable and very hard to learn,” said Nowell, who worked with local nonprofit Cultivate Charlottesville last summer as a food justice intern. He and other interns talked with The Daily Progress about their experience at Buford.
Charlottesville has a $75 million plan that officials have touted as transformational to make the 55-year-old classrooms at Buford more comfortable and to improve the middle school experience for students by cutting out the Walker stop. The buildings themselves, which opened in 1966, are inadequate to meet the needs of students, officials and supporters of the plan argue. The current buildings have noisy HVAC units and inaccessible front entrances, get little natural light, and let in moisture, dirt and pollen.
Charlottesville-based VMDO Architects, which is leading the project, have said that building plans for Buford and Walker build on two decades of scientific findings about how buildings affect health, wellness and learning. A 1999 study that looked at 21,000 students from three school districts in three states found that students with the most daylight in their rooms progressed 20% faster on math and 26% faster on reading than those with the least. More recent studies have supported those findings.
Instead of having students attend Walker for fifth and sixth grade, the school division wants to add sixth-grade to Buford — giving students more continuity in the middle grades — and send fifth-grade back to the elementaries as part of the so-called reconfiguration project. The other prong of the plan includes consolidating preschool at the Walker campus.
But that plan will be one of the most expensive capital projects the city has attempted in recent years, if not in its history. In addition to the $75 million first phase, officials want to build a standalone early childhood center at Walker for $22.3 million, which would be designed with young children in mind. Paying for the first phase will likely mean real estate tax rate increases, exhaust the city’s debt capacity and limit the city’s ability to start new capital projects for several years.
Reconfiguration By the NumbersFirst Phase: $74.78 million – $73 million expansion and renovation of Buford Middle School to bring the school’s capacity from 533 to 1,050 students. 593 students currently attend Buford. – $1.35 million to turn Walker Upper Elementary into a temporary preschool facility. – $425,000 to buy furniture for fifth-grade classrooms at elementary Second Phase: $22.3 million – Building a 48,600 square-foot early childhood center with 18 classrooms and space for support services
Walker will be turned into a temporary facility until the preschool center is constructed, which would cost about $1.35 million for the temporary facility and go toward installing step-stools and bathroom sinks, adding outdoor learning areas and making exterior improvements to the building.
City Councilors are generally supportive of the project and agreed earlier this month to include $75 million for reconfiguration in the city’s five-year capital improvement program. City and school officials are pursuing a sales tax increase that would be dedicated to school construction. If approved by the General Assembly and local voters, the city could levy a general retail sales tax at a rate of 1%, which would bring in about $12 million a year, officials have said.
The multi-million project is the School Board’s top priority, and a project several boards over the years have sought to complete it. The board initially voted to proceed with reconfiguration in October 2010 following a year of community forums and conversations about the grade set-up and school facilities.
City Councilors and the School Board have discussed the cost of the project and the implications of paying for it at several meetings over the last year with little public pushback against it. With the vote earlier this month, councilors signaled their support for it despite the funding challenges.
Experts say the project would inject millions into two pivotal moments in a child’s education — preschool and middle school — when children are experiencing a lot of physical change and brain development. For Charlottesville, the long-discussed and multi-pronged reconfiguration project would upgrade 55-year buildings and shake up a 33-year-old setup.
“… If you want to think about protecting your investments, this is how to do it,” said Nancy Deutsch, a professor with the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development, of the project. “Protect the investment you made in early childhood by investing in young adolescents also.”
The experts and architects have said that improving the physical learning environment would help improve student achievement.
“We know that our buildings are never neutral,” said Wyck Knox, the project manager for VMDO. “They’re either working for us or against us. So the design and operation of building clearly has a big impact on student health, on cognitive function and on long-term academic performance. We know this. It’s been documented. It’s been studied well that air quality and daylight and noise have a huge impact on the learner. We don’t need an academic study to tell us that here in Charlottesville because we can see it.”
At Walker and Buford, only 10% of the buildings have enough natural light that the lights can be turned off, according to the architects. VMDO’s best practice is to design buildings where 55 to 75% of the spaces have enough natural light so that the lights can be turned off.
Additionally, noise from the HVAC units at both schools is about 60-69 decibels, which is at the level similar to a conversation, according to VMDO. The goal is about 34 to 39 decibels, which is similar to a quiet office.
“Our teachers are fighting that,” Knox said at a joint meeting in September.
The expansion and renovation at Buford would double the school’s capacity and connect all the buildings on the site, ending the open campus model. Other changes include demolition of the D building, building a new academic wing in front of the school, moving the administrative offices up to the entry level and relocating the garden closer to the school. A design team made up of teachers, parents and administrators signed off on the design concept in September.
For the students interviewed, improving the building was a higher priority than moving the grades around.
“You don’t even have to do all the reconfigurations, just renovate the building,” Nowell said. “Change the bathrooms, make a few buildings nicer. If you need to knock down D building, knock it down.”
Nowell and the food justice interns cheered the demise of D, which they said smelled bad, but they liked walking outside when they changed classes since they don’t see a lot of sunlight in the building.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m locked up,” Nowell said.
Over the years, the reasons driving the reconfiguration project have changed from capacity and efficiency concerns to expanding preschool programs, but limiting transitions between schools and the potential of an early childhood center have stuck around as selling points.
Over the next several months, Charlottesville-based VMDO architects will work with teachers and administrators in the schools to flesh out building plans from figuring out where classrooms and common spaces should be located to the furnishings needed. This schematic design process will yield more specific cost estimates before City Council is set to decide in late March whether to actually fund the project.
The school division wants to start construction in July 2023, with the first phase completed by August 2026.
Parents, school administrators and other supporters want to see this project actually done because it has been talked about for more than a decade and the school buildings are in need of investment in order to meet the needs of students.
“I’m confident that what’s being proposed is going to be transformative in such a positive way, again, beyond Buford and Walker, and it’s going to have ripple effects back to every elementary school,” said Michael Joy, a Charlottesville parent and architect with the University of Virginia. “… I have a hard time seeing how you could continue on with what we have right now.”
Supporters also point to the fact that the city has not built a new school since 1974, when Charlottesville High School opened. For years, capital funding for school projects focused on maintenance projects and HVAC improvements.
Since 2009, 55.9% of the $39.1 million allocated to the school division in the city’s capital budget was budgeted for such projects. The other funds went to upgrades at the elementary schools, which started in 2017, as well as the CHS track, among other projects.
Meanwhile, communities in the area have built new schools or expanded others. Additionally, the project represents a chance for the city to make progress on its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030.
The highest level of renovations for Buford would include full geothermal systems and eliminate combustion of fossil fuels on site. Supporters of the project want to see Buford designed as a zero-energy building, which would mean solar panels on the roof and no electricity or gas bills.
“Climate change is happening; we’re feeling it now,” said Tish Tablan, a program director with Generation180, a nonprofit focused on the move to clean energy. “In our work, this is a critical decade for us to reverse the worst effects of climate change. So we have to act now, and this is one way that we can invest in our city infrastructure that helps us get there.”
From 1966 to 1988, Charlottesville had two middle schools — Walker and Buford. However, the attendance zones for the two schools led to de facto segregation of the schools, with more affluent and white students attending Walker and more Black and poor students going to Buford.
To address the disparities, the School Board at the time looked at redistricting before settling on the current set-up: a fifth and sixth-grade campus and a seventh and eighth grade one. The city allocated $1.26 million in 1987 to fund the construction needed to make that change, which would be about $2.92 million in today’s dollars.
A key reason that the Charlottesville School Board and others have wanted to reverse that setup since is because of the transitions that they say are disruptive.
Walker and Buford are the only schools in Charlottesville accredited by conditions, a status in the state’s accountability system that’s based on gaps in student achievement identified in the the 2018-19 school year. The state has waived accreditation for the past two years because of the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, 65% of Walker students passed the state math assessments — 17 percentage points lower than the state average of 82%. In reading, 64% passed, which was 14 percentage points lower than the state average. Black students didn’t meet the state benchmarks in English or math, and students with disabilities didn’t meet the benchmark in English. About 43% of Black students passed the reading tests, and 41% passed the math assessments.
At Buford, 70% passed the reading and math exams. Similar to Walker, Black students, those with disabilities and from low-income households didn’t meet all the state benchmarks in English and math. Among Black students at Buford, 45% passed the English exams and 49% passed the math ones. About 48% of economically disadvantaged students and 30% of students with disabilities passed the reading assessments.
Deutsch, with UVa, said that those transitions between schools do have a negative effect on a student’s ability to learn.
“The research does show that the transitions into middle school and out of middle school are the times when there tends to be the steepest decline,” she said in an interview over the summer. “Those transition points are tough for kids, so the more you can minimize those transitions, the better.”
Deutsch is the director of UVa’s Youth-Nex, a center focused on middle school and promoting effective youth development. She’s also been part of the Buford design meetings over the summer and shared her research with the team during a gathering in August.
Although there’s not a lot of research into Charlottesville’s particular model where the same group of students moves from one school to another, the evidence she has seen shows that the city is not unique in that the transitions aren’t good for students. She added that those multiple transitions have particularly negative effect on Black boys.
Changes are stressors for people of any age, Deutsch said.
“Every sort of change that a human has to adapt to puts stress on them emotionally and cognitively,” she said. Every time you’re changing a school, that’s a stressor. You’re learning a new routine; you’re meeting a new set of adults; you’re learning a new physical space.”
But they may be heightened when those changes are occuring at a time for middle school students when their bodies are experiencing a lot of change.
“They’re trying to navigate all of the changes that are happening in their physical and social environments, and that takes up brain energy and space,” she said, adding that it leaves less brain space to do other tasks such as learning and engaging in the classroom. “… So, if you’re sort of preoccupied, by trying to navigate these other changes, or these other systems, then you’re going to have less time and attention to give to your academic work.”
Switching schools wasn’t too bad for Hallie Goode, now a sophomore at CHS. Because of her time at Walker, she said she wasn’t too anxious for her first day at Buford.
“I wasn’t even nervous because I already knew the setup,” she said. “I just had to figure out where my classes were. Actually, to be honest, going from Walker to Buford probably gave me a boost of confidence only because I already knew that school. Like right now, I could probably walk both schools with my eyes blindfolded.”
Deutsch said there’s no clear answer on the impact of grade configurations or what the best practice would be. Some school systems have moved to a K-8 model while others retain the more traditional approach of a 6-8 middle school. Others have Charlottesville’s model.
“I think the hard thing about the configuration is that the data is so conflated with other factors that it’s very difficult to separate,” she said. Other factors include a school system’s demographics and location. “… I want people to focus on what’s happening inside the classroom, regardless of what grades are housed in the building.”
That includes project-based learning and more individualized learning opportunities in which students can express themselves.
Joy, the UVa architect, said working through the transitions from elementary school to Walker and then to Buford require a lot of bandwidth for students. His son is currently in fifth grade.
“Those are some of the most challenging developmental ages,” he said. “Social pressures around puberty and everything. It’s a lot to sit there and have to relocate into these new environments with new classmates, new cohorts and into new campuses. Even the structure of the day changes where they start to have different choices and electives.”
After going through the Walker to Buford to CHS journey, Nowell said he was worried about his little sister who is starting at Walker.
“I just told her to find an adult that you trust and try to create a bond with an adult or teacher quickly,” he said of the advice he gave his sister. “As long as you have somebody in your corner, you can’t really go wrong.”
Improving the learning space
To achieve the long-awaited reconfiguration, the school system could just install classroom trailers at Buford to accommodate the additional students. But officials have wanted to use the project to upgrade Buford, the only school south of Main Street that serves all students in the school system.
That renovation is something students and teachers want to see. Not all of the bathroom stalls locked while they were at Buford, they said, and the classrooms themselves feel crammed.
The design plans currently call for a heavy renovation of Buford, which would mean fully accessible gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the school; adding new lighting, ceilings and floors; bringing more daylight into the building; changing the interior layouts of the main academic building; expanding the stage; full replacement of HVAC units; modernization of the kitchen equipment; and upgrades to the exterior walls.
Bright spots in the Buford building are the engineering lab and renovated science labs, which opened in 2013. The $1.4 million project was the only meaningful upgrade to Buford in the last decade and includes better wireless technology and furniture that can be moved around.
“The science part was really my favorite because it just looks futuristic,” Nowell said.
He liked the adjustable chairs in the classroom as well as the extra space. Other students agreed.
“It was comfortable, you know,” said Rosy Pori, a sophomore at CHS, of the science labs. “… What we’re trying to say is that we need a little bit more room.”
Interior projects at Walker and Buford such as major restroom renovations and ceiling and floor replacements have been deferred because of the looming prospect of reconfiguration. However, maintenance projects focus on health and safety and the structure of the buildings such as HVAC replacements and resurfacing steps have continued, according to the school system.
Reconfiguration Key Dates & Decisions• January 8, 2009: Efficiency study presented to School Board, calling for the closure of an elementary school. • April 20, 2009: Then schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins presents four options to the community to kick off a series of community meetings about school facilities. Those four options were: staying the same, closing an elementary school, having two middle schools, or going to sixth through eighth grade middle school. • Oct. 27, 2009: Community group narrows the options to the fourth one • Oct. 21, 2010: School Board votes to proceed with the reconfiguration plan, citing the benefits of a centralized preschool • Feb. 17, 2011: School Board votes to make Buford the middle school • November 2011: VMDO Architects estimates the project would cost $46 million • January 2012: Plan abandoned because of cost and the economic downturn • Fall 2015: Former Councilor Wes Bellamy asks for a plan to expand prekindergarten • Summer 2017: VMDO capacity study released in response to rising student enrollment • Sept. 26, 2017: School Board meets to review capacity study and reconfiguration and central preschool presented again • Dec. 19, 2018: Board decides to proceed with reconfiguration plan, estimated to cost $55 million with a range from $60 to $80 million. • Spring 2019: City Council approves $3 million for a reconfiguration design study to estimate cost • Spring 2021: City Council includes $50 million placeholder in CIP for project • Spring 2021: VMDO receives contract for the design phase • June 2021: Design meetings begin • October 2021: City Council votes to swap out the placeholder for a $75 million project, moving the project forward
Demetrius Brown, a freshman at CHS, and Goode said the classroom setup in the labs made it easier for students to see the teacher, regardless of where they were sitting.
“Everyone could see the teacher because no one was in the way with their heads,” Brown said.
If the whole building was like the science labs, that would’ve made a positive difference in their experience at Buford, the students said.
Deutsch said that overall she’s excited about the potential improvements at Buford from the increase in natural light to different spaces where students can gather.
“Middle schoolers still need opportunities for movement and play, and I think we’ve tended to often take that out of middle school,” she said. “… They need physical motion. They need cognitive breaks, and so thinking about the ways that those things can be built into a day.”
Schools built in the 1960s such as Buford and Walker don’t feel open and welcoming, she said.
“I think that constructing buildings where you can use the physical space to create an emotional reaction that’s positive and results in kids feeling excited and engaged to learn, so that’s No. 1,” she said.
Joy and other parents like the plans proposed so far for Buford and Walker, especially the connections to the outdoors and the increase in natural light.
“My son is in a windowless classroom [at Walker], so it’s great to see that attention and that sort of thoughtfulness being proposed,” he said.
Joy applauded the teachers at Walker for their work to ensure students are having the best experience they can in spite of the environment.
“But they can’t change the actual built environments,” he said. “… They can’t change the lighting quality. They can’t change the air quality or the technology.”
For Joy, the status quo is the riskiest proposition.
“This stuff is long overdue. I think that you could have made a case that this would have been easier, if every decade there was some infusion of something, it probably would have been more cost effective. But by sort of opting to do nothing for so long, you do have to kind of then have a bigger lift to kind of bring things up to be competitive and to be compelling.”