Back to school: Start times, the death of class rank, and more

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School's in! Photo: Elli Williams School's in! Photo: Elli Williams

It’s that time of year again: Kids are headed back to school. As both county and city school divisions prepare for the annual return of students, we’ve collected updates on a few hot topics in local public education, from starting bells to snow days. Check out our feature stories on the city schools’ tablet program and the rise of the county’s science academies, too.

New city schools start times in effect

You snooze, you lose, the old saying goes, and that’s certainly true for birds and people with jobs. But a body of research cited by the National Sleep Foundation shows that for teenagers the opposite is true: You snooze, you win! That’s the basis for Charlottesville City Schools’ decision to adjust school start times this year to allow kids from fifth to 12th grades to sleep later than students in the earlier grades.

This year, students in 5th to 8th grades at Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle schools get nearly an hour of extra zzzzz’s and will begin class at 8:30am (last year, classes began at 7:40am). Charlottesville High School students, who already had a relatively luxurious 9am start time in previous years, will get an extra five minutes and start school at 9:05am.

It’s the littlest ones (and their parents) who may not be loving arriving at school by 8:00am, but science (and parents of those happy older children) say the younger kids and their families will be grooving on the change as soon as they get out of elementary school. Assistant Superintendant Jim Henderson says he hasn’t heard a peep of complaint since the school board voted to make the time change official. In other districts that have implemented later start times, student performance improved measurably while tardies and absences declined, and Henderson said the school system will continue tracking tardies and absences to measure any effects.

Rank, filed away

The days of reporting class rank to colleges are over in Albemarle County and Charlottesville City schools as of the upcoming school year, and students, parents, and administrators hope that taking the emphasis off rank will encourage high school students to explore interests and opportunities they might previously have passed over in favor of classes that would directly raise that number.

“All class ranking really does is show the students where they line up with the rest of their peers,” a trio of students from Monticello High School wrote in an article published on Charlottesville Tomorrow arguing for class rank to be abolished.

The decision to stop reporting class rank to colleges stems in part from such pressure from parents and students, who also vocalized their feelings about class rank at school board meetings, said Albemarle County Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita. The school’s own analysis backed the conclusion as well.  

“We track college admissions very closely, and we have a good feeling of what college admissions folks are looking for,” said Giaramita. “Class rank was not as important to colleges reputationally as it historically had been.”

Charlottesville City Schools came to a similar conclusion, according to spokesperson Beth Cheuk, who notes that this coming year’s seniors—the Class of 2015—will be the first to go to college without a number comparing them to their classmates. Instead, Cheuk said, the school will rank students by decile—top 10 percent, second 10 percent etc.

Both Cheuk and Giaramita don’t anticipate problems, and note that students applying to shools that require a numeric rank can still get their rank reported on request.

“The bottom line of the issue, beyond just Albemarle county, is the unanimity amongst admissions officers is that class rank just does not matter as much anymore,” said Giaramita.

Bus-ted

Parents would like to believe that their kids are safe when riding to and from school on the big yellow bus, and for the most part, it’s true. Unfortunately, some car drivers are numbnuts who ignore the rules of the road designed to keep children safe. In fact, according to data collected during a pilot program that equipped Albemarle County school buses with stop-sign arm cameras, there are plenty of drivers who drive right past a stopped school bus, even though it can carry a $250 fine and puts children at risk.

The cameras, placed on two buses traveling Route 29 over 41 days in 2013, recorded 79 violations—two nearly every day. Armed with that information, the county is moving ahead with acquiring the cameras, said school spokesperson Phil Giaramita, with the earliest installation happening in November or December.

County tech surge

A few years ago, Albemarle County was just getting into the instructional technology game, handing out iPods like educational candy to students in the upper grades. They’re upping their tech game this year, giving out 3,800 Lenova laptops to students in the county’s five middle and three high schools. “The benefit is not the computers, but rather what the computers allow you to do regarding instruction,” said County Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita, adding that the goal is for every student in grades 6-12 to have a school-issued laptop within two years.

The school division is managing the estimated $X,XXX,XXX price tag with existing budgets and a state technology grant, and Giaramita said administrators have realized savings in a number of ways: by buying in bulk and by hiring students as paid interns to program the computers this summer rather than outsourcing the job (an estimated $150,000 savings, said Giaramita). And by going paperless for report cards and teacher/parent communications—another of this year’s big tech initiatives—Giaramita said the school system hopes to save another 100 grand.

Preparing for snow

Who can forget the winter of 2013-14 when it snowed so often it seemed like kids—particularly those who attended Albemarle County public schools—were home more often than they were at school? (Of course, Albemarle’s 11 snow days paled before Nelson County’s 18 and Lousia’s 17.) With school extended by a week in June, the county school board investigated the possibility of implementing inclement weather bus routes that would allow schools to open even when the more rural roads were impassable, but ultimately they decided against it.

“The recommendation from the transportation department was that such a plan would present more issues than it would solve,” said Albemarle County Schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita. In preparation for the possible repeat of a particularly harsh winter, the school board has instead identified five make-up days for this year before school even starts. Those make-up days are January 20, February 16, April 3 and June 8 and 9. Beyond that, Giaramita said, the school board will have to determine how to make up the time. 

Charlottesville City Schools, which closed for seven days due to snow last year, is also preparing for winter weather with more optimism, scheduling only two days for make-ups: February 16 and April 3. Days 3-5 will not be made up as the school board has voted to use banked hours (those beyond the 180 required by the state). The school board will determine later in the year how to make up additional days if needed, according to school spokesperson Beth Cheuk.

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