Albemarle County’s $10 million experiment in “classroom modernization” (read: open classrooms) has failed miserably in at least one key County school.

Open classrooms—wherein walls are removed and spaces combined to accommodate additional students—were a big selling-point in 2016 when Albemarle County force-fed a $35 million bond referendum to a gullible public.

Initially led by recently retired Superintendent Pam Moran and recently fired Chief Technology Officer Ira Socol, implementation of the open classroom has been difficult division-wide, as students, parents, and teachers have raised complaints over degradation of the learning environment.

In the first few weeks of the school year, the situation in Albemarle High School’s (AHS) new “open” science “super rooms” became so bad that Principal Jesse Turner pitched an unorthodox, two-fold solution:

  1. Reconstruct a facsimile of the classroom walls
  2. Modify grading scales and slow teacher pace to ensure that no student got less than a “B” in affected science classes

AHS Science Department Chair, Tony Wayne, shared with colleagues Turner’s plan for reconstituting classroom configuration:

From: Tony Wayne
Sent: Thursday, October 25, 2018 11:24 AM
To: Diana Webber; Tracy Soffa; Tony Wayne; Carey Oliver; Jeffrey Schwalm; Melissa Brown; Jennifer Brannock; Michael Farabaugh; Katie Christie; Roni Jennings; Crystal Randall; Kathryn Bender; LaNika Barnes; Michelle Benedict; Kate Howard; John Benson; Megan Spalding; Karen Power

Subject: Super Room conversions

Jesse said that he will get anything we need for changing the rooms from a super room to a pair of singles. I’ve created a spreadsheet in the team drive for entering the stuff you list the items you may need to accomplish this. I also made some notes to help you on the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is called, “Super Room Conversion Needs” and is located here, https://goo.gl/y5mxMx. It is also pre-populated with some possible sources for whiteboards on wheels and mobile sound barriers. You can go to those sites to see what is offered and what you may need.

Let’s get this ball rolling…

-Tony

Tony Wayne
Albemarle High School
Physics teacher
Science Dept Chair
MESA director

Wayne’s communique followed an October 18 email from AHS assistant principal Kate Howard to a host of faculty and staff, which exposes Dr. Turner’s student/teacher grade-bailout scheme:

From: Kate Howard
Sent: Thursday, October 18, 2018 5:54 PM
To: Roni Jennings; Harriet Bell; Katie Christie; LaNika Barnes; Kathryn Bender; Jennifer Brannock; John Benson; Megan Spalding; Carey Oliver
Cc: Tony Wayne; Jesse Turner

Subject: Grading in the Super Rooms for Q1
Importance: High

Super Room Teachers,

After talking in detail with Dr. Turner today, I wanted to mention something to keep in mind as you work on grading and finishing out the quarter – please do not allow the room environment or unpleasant start to the year to result in lower-than-usual grades for students. Unless there is an exceptional situation with a specific student, it’s going to be hard to convince me and Dr. Turner that any student taking a science course that occurs in a super room should earn below a B for Q1. Of course, there would be lower grades in a usual classroom setting, but given all the things that have gone wrong with the beginning of this year, we have to do everything we can to ensure that students do not bear negative consequences for a setup that is not their fault. If you need to slow the pace of your instruction from now until Nov. 1 to allow students time in class to complete missing assignments, that is completely fine with me. Your grading practices and pacing can return to normal when Q2 begins.

If you anticipate concerns from parents, please connect with me to determine how to handle those conversations.

Thanks for your continued patience and support of our students!

Kate

Kate Howard, Ed.S.
Assistant Principal
Albemarle High School

Howard’s letter makes clear that she and Dr. Turner were acknowledging:

  1. A poor “room environment” exists
  2. The start to the year has been “unpleasant”
  3. That no student was to be given a grade below “B” unless “an exceptional situation” existed
  4. That “lower grades” typically would be assigned in “a usual classroom setting”
  5. That teacher grading practices could “return to normal” in the 2nd quarter

All of these disastrous consequences occurred presumably due to Socol and Moran’s open classroom gambit.

Coincidentally, following The Schilling Show’s initial open records request of October 25 and Albemarle County’s October 26 reply, Dr. Turner and his AHS staff had a change of heart.

School division spokesman, Phil Giaramita, reported in an October 31 email to The Schilling Show, a reversion of sorts to earned, rather than gifted grades:

The principal, Dr. Jesse Turner, met with teachers this week to clarify the previous direction that students should not be penalized for the disruption that characterized the learning environment in the larger classroom. That triggered the suggestion that except in an unusual circumstances, students should not receive less than a B.

The guidance now has reverted back to what it is for all teachers and students–students should receive the grade they earned, even if it is less than a B. Dr. Turner reminded teachers that they always have a responsibility to work with students who are struggling with their grades. Our expectation, he said, is that all students can achieve high grades providing they have the proper support from teachers and administrators.

If a teacher believes that the academic performance of a student in the larger science classroom clearly was affected by the change, that should be handled on a case-by-case basis. That student should not be unfairly penalized for a condition beyond their control.

So, ultimately, it appears that most AHS science students were graded on their merits (or lack thereof) rather that benefitting from grade socialism.

However, in many ways, these students were and are the victims of overly ambitious government-school administrators. Those seeking to garnish their professional bona fides and justify exorbitant compensation chose to ignore the clear lessons of the 1970s and 1990s when open classrooms were tried, failed miserably, and subsequently were abolished.

Socol, Moran, and the voters of Albemarle County should have known better.

12 COMMENTS

  1. *Sigh* Open classrooms was a dopey idea back when it was first tried in the 70’s and it’s still moronic. Nobody can hear his own teacher over the din, and everybody is distracted. Why can’t liberals ever learn from their mistakes?!

    Let’s take their harebrained idea one step further: simply let the students stay home and give everybody an “A” anyway.

  2. There is no “smocking gun” here, Rob, but “grade socialism” is a nice try. Since you’re an award-winning journalist, however, why don’t you tell us how you know that the powers that burnishing – not “garnishing,” check the dictionary – reputations and justifying higher-than-you-think-they-should-be salary levels was the motive here.

    That imputation of bad motives is the essential Schilling Show touch. Love looks for the best, even in its enemies. You imagine the worst.

  3. “Garnish” is perfectly appropriate here, Ken. In typical progressive fashion, you just won’t read beyond the first dictionary definition; lazy to the core and wanting someone else to do the work for you.

    Of course you’re in favor of covering up dirty deeds in government schools. Dumbed-down and Godless students are future voters of the Democrat party.

  4. None of this is rocket science: public schools experiment with all kinds of fads based on the coolest, neatest sensation to come from the halls of the elite and–usually–based on what will either further the career or pocketbooks of those in charge. The “open classroom” concept is one of many. When you get to the higher halls of authority in public schools, it comes down to money. No doubt Dr. Moran and her ilk looked at the idea and thought: “Wow, we could also save money here.”

    This is the same type of money-driven action taken in Fluvanna County, when they disgustingly pushed through a $70,000,000 high school based on faulty population projections. So, to better populate this white elephant in Palmyra and to justify their miscalculations, they decided to send 8th graders to high school. Purely a money move based not in educational efficacy. Now they’re in a panic as the census continues to dwindle (due to homeschooling as well as demographics).

    The purveyors of government education seem to think that most motives are purely altruistic for the all-important job of educating the masses. However, the federal government interference into public education has rendered it just another bureaucracy.

    My question is this: If your grandfather who was close to you had willed his precious and prize 1957 Chevy to you, and you moved it to your new neighborhood, and every time you brought it to the mechanic, he complained that he does not have enough money for the latest diagnostic tools, cannot pay his mechanics their fair pay, cannot afford the proper tools, is short staffed and cannot send his workers to ongoing training, would you still bring your car there? Well, those are the complaints I hear from virtually every school district in the area, and we still send kids there.

  5. Thank you for investigating and publishing this.

    While Ken may technically be correct that the emails quoted do not present irrefutable proof of mal intent by the AHS administrators, they certainly leave open the possibility that the intention was to smooth over negative publicity by covering up the actual classroom outcomes.

    More importantly (more important even than arguments over grammar), the emails clearly provide proof of very poor decision making by at least two high level school administrators at AHS. Having teachers give out grades not based on classroom performance or content knowledge is deceitful and possibly fraudulent on a number of levels.

    It deceives the student into believing their performance was better than it was. It similarly deceives the students’ parents as to their child’s actual performance. This all sets up some interesting scenarios for some students, parents and teachers in Q2 and beyond when the unadvertized grade subsidiies are removed and reality sets in (with less time to correct problems).

    It deceives the county schools administration, the school board and the tax payers at large as to the actual results of this expensive and seemingly ill-conceived experiment.

    It deceives the businesses and colleges who rely on the assessment of an accredited high school to help guide their hiring and admission decisions. In fact, I wonder if such actions have exposed the county schools to investigation or potential sanctions by acredidation bodies.

    It also puts the teachers in question in a terrible position where they are encouraged by superiors to do something that is at best morally questionable. Teachers should never be placed in such a situation by their administrators.

    Both of the main issues (the push for open classrooms and the encouragement of grade fudging) deserve further scrutiny. I hope the Schilling Show will keep at it.

  6. John, I’m sure negative publicity crossed the minds of the administrators; they’re only human. The question is whether the intended grade inflation would have been best for the kids, and here I think it’s pertinent that they were talking about one school year quarter only.

    In regards to businesses and colleges considering whether to hire or admit the affected students, you certainly raise a valid question, but again, how much difference is one grade for one quarter likely to make in their assessments?

    In regards to teachers being asked to act against their will, for all we know they liked the directive because they felt bad for the kids.

    Lastly, regardless of whether or not the administrators acted wisely – all of the above can be argued with of course, and it’s Turner who had the right idea, I would say – I don’t believe it’s morally problematic to compensate students who have been unfairly disadvantaged.

  7. We’re focusing on the end result of this grand experiment. Crux of the matter is that $10M was apparently wasted on a concept that should never have seen the light of day. The grading fiasco was CYA. Unsurprisingly, now that Ms Moran has retired we have Ann Mallek to carry on the progressive agenda of the Albemarle County BOS. Rob blamed the $35M bond passage on gullible citizens. I think that is misplaced. The voters that put these people on the board and citizens that approved the bonds are one and the same. They are progressives doing what progressives do which is to throw vast sums of money at pie in the sky grand solutions that never seem to work as they envisioned. We actually used to apply this concept by necessity back in the day out of necessity, not choice. Why would anyone think it improves the learning experience today?

  8. Greetings, Rob,

    The one consistent message I heard from teachers in my several listening tour sessions was that they wanted to be in on the ground floor when a new concept is being planned and developed. That makes a great deal of sense to me since it’s the teachers who are the classroom experts and have the direct responsibility for the quality of instruction in the room.

    I am not happy with the way the open science classrooms at Albemarle High School played out at the beginning of the school year. Neither the principal nor the teachers were involved in the conceptual planning and that resulted in a considerable degree of confusion during the first months of the school year. I think that was an example of why teachers talked with me during the listening tour about being more inclusive.

    After talking with Dr. Turner as this situation unfolded, I supported his plan to encourage not just the science teachers, but all teachers, to consider how changes in the learning environment were affecting students. I know you agree students should be graded fairly on their work. In the case of the science students at Albemarle, it would not have been fair to assess their progress when their ability to be successful was impeded by teachers trying to learn a new instructional model and lesson plans in too short a period of time. We own that as a mistake.

    All of us can remember and appreciate teachers who “threw out” a test item or “curved” test scores because it was evident that the subject matter was not clearly understood by the majority of students or because questions were poorly designed.

    That was Dr. Turner’s point back in September, but regrettably, it was misinterpreted arbitrarily to mean that no students in the open science classrooms should receive less than a B grade. That misunderstanding was corrected and never went into practice.

    I want to point out that today’s open classrooms do have value because they add to the range of learning environments for teachers and students. Larger spaces with multiple teachers gives a single teacher more flexibility to work with individual students or groups of students. Spaces in the room are easier to utilize for specific projects and they facilitate much more teamwork among students, which can spark problem-solving or new ideas.

    Our goal is to prepare students for lifetime success as learners, workers and citizens. A few years ago, we were talking with a local entrepreneur, who told us he needed to hire employees who could make up to $20 an hour without a college degree. He said his problem was that it took him a year to train the employee to the level where value was being added. A good portion of his facility was open-space; no individual offices. I think a good many business leaders could tell the same story all across the America.

    While many people are involved in decision-making for facilities changes, I am determined to ensure, moving forward, that we make the most effective and cost-efficient decisions possible. This means giving voice to administrators, teachers, parents,and to the community upfront on programs, projects, facility design and improvements. That leads to better planning and preparation.

    I want to be as open as possible to as many ideas as possible. I believe that’s how the best decisions are made.

    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this story.

    Matt Haas

  9. Dr. Haas,

    You stated that “…but regrettably, it was misinterpreted arbitrarily to mean that no students in the open science classrooms should receive less than a B grade.”

    So, who was responsible for the arbitrary misinterpretation?

    Your statement would imply that it would have been the assistant principal, Dr. Kate Howard.

    In her email (provided in the article), she very clearly states that “Unless there is an exceptional situation with a specific student, it’s going to be hard to convince me and Dr. Turner that any student taking a science course that occurs in a super room should earn below a B for Q1.”

    Given her unabashed statement, what seems more likely is that there was no arbitrary misinterpretation at all. Instead, it would appear that the administration’s decision to deliberately fudge student grades was driven by one of two possibilities: malicious socialist ideology, or sheer ineptitude.

    Neither case is the least bit acceptable. Our students deserve better. Our tax-payers deserve better. Our community deserves better.

    You were right, Dr. Haas, when you said these big rooms “add to the range of learning environments for teachers and students.” Mathematically speaking, there are two ways to increase a range of any given distribution: by expanding the lower end, and by expanding the upper end. Unfortunately, these big rooms expand the lower end of learning environments for teachers and students, as this fiasco, as well as the academic literature, clearly illustrate.

    I hope that you and the Albemarle School Board can see to it that this situation is rectified, and that evidence-based educational practices are put into place.

    Once again: Our students deserve better. Our tax-payers deserve better. Our community deserves better.

    Thank you, Mr. Schilling, for taking the time to report on this important issue.

  10. First, this Ken guy above is daft.
    Second, why are Howard and Turner still employed? They should be fired immediately. Disgusting.

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