At the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, Albemarle County Public Schools was notified that its Learning Commons at Monticello High School received the highest award bestowed by the National School Board Association (NSBA). The NSBA Magna Award is given annually to the one school division in the nation (based on enrollment) that is “taking bold and innovative steps to improve the lives of their students and their communities.”
It was the second time in three years that an Albemarle County School Division program received a Magna Award. This was significant not only because the division became the first in NSBA history to have two programs so recognized, or because the Learning Commons had increased individual student visits to the library from 400 per year to more than 70,000. The most significant impact of this achievement was the shift that the Learning Commons represents in the school division’s instructional model.
It is the division’s conviction that traditional instructional models no longer are the best pathway for preparing students for post-graduate success. Student surveys show that traditional modesl yield lower levels of student engagement with learning throughout their academic careers. This led the division to a new instructional model that empowers students to be creative, think analytically to solve problems, and work in teams and effectively communicate ideas. The goal is to promote these skills across the entire student body and in 2014-15 this new model made significant progress in the school division’s curriculum across all grade levels.
Transforming the Traditional Model
In the Learning Commons, this transformation took the form of a Genius Bar, where students learn to troubleshoot and repair computers; a glass room, where Skype sessions are held on a large white wall and students take notes, jot down ideas and write messages on glass walls; a maker space complete with 3D printers; a writer’s café and poetry corner; a hacker space where students incorporate Minecraft and other programs into their projects; and an open classroom and to digital recording studios where students create original pieces of music. Use of the Learning Commons has cut across the entire curriculum, from science students who designed a new MRI application to drama students who connected via Skype with a Tony-Award winning actress on the interpretation of their Spring Musical to history students who study the civil war using the 3D printer to recreate battlefields.
This shift to a greater emphasis on project-based learning, values not just the accumulation of knowledge by students but their application of knowledge to solve problems, work together in teams and to turn new ideas into useful creations. This is a natural step towards fulfilling the division’s one strategic goal for all students…to have them graduate having actively mastered the lifelong learning skills that they need to succeed as 21st century learners, workers and citizens.
This model expanded horizontally and vertically throughout the school division this past year. Libraries at Albemarle and Western Albemarle High Schools are being modernized in similar ways. The maker curriculum now is prevalent throughout middle and elementary schools, with spaces reconfigured to engage students in hands-on learning exploration and discovery at all grade levels.
These changes are consistent with emerging trends at the state and national levels, where standardized testing is losing ground as the preferred method of student learning assessment. This past year, Virginia eliminated five Standard-of-Learning tests required of students and an innovation committee is exploring the possibility of further reductions.
Presentations at the White House
The benefits of Albemarle County’s approach range from students winning community entrepreneurship competitions, to presentations at the White House, to an advanced manufacturing curriculum in all middle schools to the school division’s sharing a $3.2 million federal innovation grant.
It is reflected in the division’s fine arts programs in secondary schools, where, in the past year, there were more than 18,000 student displays and performances for a combined audience of nearly 72,000.
At the Piedmont Regional Science Fair, a showcase for project-based learning excellence throughout Central Virginia, Albemarle County public school students earned 11 of the 15 first-place awards and 19 of the 23 second and third place awards. Both Best-in-Show winners were from the county.
One of the challenges of moving to more student-centered learning is assessing student progress by a measure other than test scores. This past year, the division expanded the use of balanced assessment models, incorporating end-of-course projects instead of the more traditional final examinations. The majority of students who chose an end-of-course project found it to be a valuable learning experience, allowing them to integrate across disciplines, to work at increased levels of rigor and to perfect their assignment over a period of time instead of being judged on the basis of a single test.
The ultimate measure of a school division’s success is its on-time graduation rate. Nearly 95 percent of Albemarle County seniors graduated within four years of entering high school, higher than the statewide rate for every one of the nation’s 50 states.
Student scores on college readiness SATs were 42, 40 and 39 points above the averages for all Virginia students on the reading, math and writing tests respectively. Compared to their national peers, their scores were higher by 68, 55 and 59 points. Nearly six in ten Albemarle County students met the College Board’s college readiness index, well above comparable state and national averages.
The past year also saw an expansion in other career readiness activities with an increase in work-based learning opportunities that included a broader range of student mentorships and job shadowing through the division’s career and technical education offerings in the high schools.
In other significant developments during the past school year:
- The division’s emphasis on early skill development resulted in 77 percent of kindergarten students reading on grade level and 91 percent working on grade level in math. Overall, 82 percent of elementary school students were reading on grade level and 95 percent achieved grade level work in math;
- For the sixth year, graduation rates for English as a Second or Other Language students exceeded the rate for their peers across the state;
- More than seven out of ten special education students received 80 percent or more of their instruction in mainstream classrooms , well above state averages;
- This past year saw the first graduating class of students who completed a full-term AVID program. All 16 graduates have gone on to higher education. The AVID program (Advancement Via Individual Determination) serves students who would be the first in their family to attend college. Jouett Middle School’s AVID program is in the top three percent of such programs in the world;
- With the debut of the Environmental Studies Academy at Western Albemarle High School, each of the division’s three comprehensive high schools now has an academy. The Health & Medical Sciences Academy is at Monticello High School and the Math, Engineering & Science Academy is completing its sixth year at Albemarle High School. Academy graduates have earned more than $2.4 million in academic scholarships, have sent nine students to the International Science Fair and have won a world championship in robotics among other achievements. Students in the Health, Medical & Sciences Academy serve in more than 45 internships at hospitals, clinics, laboratories and in private industry;
- The division continued to expand its online course offerings and expects nearly 600 course credits to be earned virtually this year by students.