Making the grade: Your guide to an A+ school year

Photo: File Photo Photo: File Photo

At the start of a new academic year, it’s inevitable that some students mourn their summer vacations and others feel happy to have something to do. Either way, going back to school can be a stressful time for both students and parents. Who’s picking Jacob up from football practice? And how much did Jessica’s scientific calculator cost!? In this year’s Back to School issue, you’ll find tips and tricks for managing both you and your child’s busy schedule, new technology you can expect to see in the classroom this year (hint: laptops!) and which teacher is bound to have all the kids clamoring for a seat in her classroom. Plus, we’ll show you just how much school supplies are weighing on your bank account and how those items and costs differ across city, county and private schools. There’s a lot to consider as you say goodbye to summer and hello to another busy school year, but we’re rooting for you.

Laugh and learn

Jennifer Horne, a teacher at Charlottesville High School, discovered her passion for teaching long before she had the degree to prove it. Photo: Jackson Smith
Jennifer Horne, a teacher at Charlottesville High School, discovered her passion for teaching long before she had the degree to prove it. Photo: Jackson Smith

A model teacher recognized

Entering her eighth year of teaching at Charlottesville High School, Jennifer Horne proves that you’ll never work a day in your life if you love what you do. To CHS administration, faculty and students, the ninth grade teacher has earned her role model status with improv classes, by sponsoring the hip-hop and freestyle club and introducing a program that has been adopted by teachers nationally.

Before beginning her teaching career at CHS, Horne studied theater as an undergrad at James Madison University. After graduation, she moved to Atlanta for 10 years, where she owned a local theater troupe and, during the latter half of her time, taught improv classes for at-risk kids, who impressed her with their thoughtful and funny improvisations. Horne says she had no idea that this would help her discover exactly what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

“I found that I like teaching even more than I like performing,” Horne says, and consequently, she went to graduate school at UVA and earned a master’s degree in secondary education. Now teaching English, public speaking and improv at CHS, Horne says she’s studying her class rosters and is excited to meet her new students.

She hasn’t forgotten theater, though. Along with teaching improv to ninth graders, who, she says, have wonderful senses of humor and who “want to be so big, but they’re still kid enough that they dig it,” she continues to practice improv with the Bent Theater Company, which she started in Charlottesville.

Horne’s claim to fame is the incorporation of “unleveled” classes at CHS, which contain a mix of students of all success levels, where the class can be completed for academic or honors credit. If students are reaching for the honors credit, though, they are required to do additional coursework during the year.

“I have shaken a lot of hands and kissed a lot of babies,” Horne says about getting the unleveled model adopted at CHS. The main challenge was reassuring parents that unleveled classes would be challenging for their children, but overall, she says they’ve been “amazingly successful.”

Horne and her colleague, Nicole Carter, gave a presentation on unleveled classes at the National Convention for Teachers of English and now, she says teachers from all over the country e-mail her for lesson plans.

As for another great teaching victory, Horne and many other teachers and administrators are excited that standardized testing could be on its way out. “Multiple choice stops kids from questioning and instead asks kids to answer,” she laughs. “It’s weird.”

New gadgets

Laptops issued to city and county students

At the start of the 2015-2016 academic year, a slew of new technologies are trickling into city and county schools. This year, one common gadget is being handed out across the board.

A pilot last year at Walker Upper Elementary School has encouraged city school officials to assign Chromebooks, which are basically just budget laptops, to all students in grades three to 12, according to Beth Cheuk, community relations liaison for Charlottesville City Schools.

“Obviously, each school will have its own policies about whether students bring the devices home,” she says, “since a third-grader is different than a high-schooler.”

In the county, all middle and high school students will be issued Lenova laptops, says Albemarle schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita.

“Students will be able to use the laptops in their homes to conduct research and collaborate with their peers on projects,” Giaramita says. As a part of a pilot program, some fourth and fifth graders will have access to these laptops, as well.

City schools are further exploring Canvas, a web-based learning management system where teachers can post all of their class content in one place, and students can use an electronic calendar that shows every class’ assignments and due dates. A virtual drop box on the site allows students to turn in their homework online. Parents can create an account, too, to keep an eye on their child’s progress. In the county, teachers continue to use a similar online program called Blackboard.

In both regions, teachers use smart boards, or interactive white boards with Internet capabilities, in their classrooms across the division, though Giaramita says county schools are seeing less value in these boards now that most students are issued their own laptop.

And at Charlottesville High School, a three-year renovation of school-wide science labs is coming to an end with the upgrade of nine lab rooms with high-tech work stations and the incorporation of what Cheuk calls an “age-old tool:” sunlight. She says the formerly windowless rooms will now be day-lighted. Just last year,  CHS debuted the Sigma Lab, which Cheuk describes as a suite of labs and work rooms that support engineering, science and the integration of new technologies across a variety of disciplines.

Albemarle County High School has undergone renovations, too, as some lockers have been replaced by laptop charging stations, which include benches for sitting and outlets for charging computers on each side.

Also in the county, bus drivers’ iPods are being replaced with tablets, which will be used to track time and manage students. In the future, the tablets will be used to make transportation more efficient, according to Giaramita.

In what could be the most beneficial advancement for families, county schools are continuing with the installation of fiber optic cables that will improve broadband services among school facilities and eventually bring high-speed Internet availability to more students’ homes.

While some parents may encourage these cool new gadgets, others would prefer going back to a time of loose leaf paper and graphite pencils. But at city and county schools, there’s no escaping the digital age.

Pencils and flash drives and glue, oh my!

How much do back-to-school supplies actually cost?

There’s nothing quite like back-to-school shopping. New shoes, freshly sharpened pencils, planners that will totally get used this year (no really, for real this time), glue sticks that haven’t hardened yet. But as kids transition from elementary to middle school, and from middle to high school, those supplies lists start getting a little longer and a little more expensive. Curious as to how back-to-school costs compare for families at city, county and private schools, we took a look at the lists for sixth graders at Walker Upper Elementary, Henley Middle and St. Anne’s-Belfield schools.

Overall, the lists for incoming sixth grade students look pretty similar. You’ve got your standard three-ring binders, notebook paper, pencils, erasers, highlighters. But across the board, teachers expect their students to invest in USB flash drives and earbuds, both of which start around $10 on Amazon. And some schools are particular about specific brands, like Crayola colored pencils and Mead five-star three-subject notebooks.

Teachers in public schools also ask families to invest in items for the classroom: Walker requests hand sanitizer, two boxes of tissues, disinfectant wipes and a box of plastic baggies from each student, and Henley asks for a box of tissues per student. The STAB list is divided into three categories: items to be provided by the school, items for parents to purchase and items students should have at home. STAB provides three-ring binders, notebook paper, pencils, pencil pouches and dividers, and expects parents to invest in Expo markers, glue sticks and a scientific calculator.

According to standard costs at stores like Walmart and Target, here’s how much sixth graders are expected to spend at three different schools.

The cost of going to sixth grade*

It used to be that all you needed supplies-wise to start a new school year was a notebook and a few pencils. As you can see from the lists below, times have changed. Oh, and don’t forget the fancy L.L. Bean backpack with your kid’s initials embroidered on the outside pocket ($29.96-$139) and a new lunchbox because last year’s still smells like peanut butter.


Composition books: $12

3-ring binder: $3

Notebook paper: $4

Dividers: $3

Pencil pouch: $3

Colored pencils: $5

Pencil sharpener: $2

Glue and glue sticks: $6 

24 No.2 pencils: $6

Pencil cap erasers: $3

Highlighter: $2

Scissors: $3

Tape: $2

Earbuds: $10

USB drive: $10

Pens: $4

Tissues: $2

Total: $80


Binder: $3

Paper: $4

Dividers: $3

Pencils: $8

Erasers: $3

Colored pencils: $5

Highlighters: $2

Earbuds: $10

Flash drive: $10

Hand sanitizer: $2

Tissues: $2

Disinfectant wipes: $2

Plastic baggies: $3

Expo markers: $3

3-subject spiral notebook: $8 

Pocket folders: $6 

Total: $74

St. Anne’s-Belfield

Composition notebooks: $5

Glue sticks: $3

Expo markers: $3

French dictionary: $8 

Flash drive: $10

Scientific calculator: $15

Notebook paper: $4

Graph paper: $4

Index cards: $2

Scissors: $3

Ruler: $1

Dictionary: $5

Total: $63

*Rounded costs according to

Back to reality

The school-year evening hustle

As the parent of one elementary and one middle schooler, I have officially transitioned from eagerly anticipating the start of school each fall to dreading the crush of schedule complications that the change in season brings. Summer is so comparatively relaxed with its less structured days and less urgent bedtimes—and, of course, its lack of homework, a reliable source of school-year drama in our house. Especially on days when I work from home, I feel I am stockpiling strength from 7:30am to 2:30pm to brace me for the onslaught of driving, bickering, dinner prep, nagging and multitasking that comprise 2:30 to 8:30(-ish).

It’s easy to feel isolated in the swirl of your own family’s chaos, so I reached out to three local moms with a short questionnaire about the rhythm and routines of their school-year evenings.

In reading their responses I felt reassured that I was not alone in finding afternoons and evenings challenging, and I even picked up a couple of tips and strategies for easing the pain.

Mom is the one in school

Kathyrn Murray is the one who has to worry about getting  her homework done and have time for husband Jack, while tending to Latham and John, who aren’t in school yet. Photo: Amy Jackson
Kathyrn Murray is the one who has to worry about getting her homework done and have time for husband Jack, while tending to Latham and John, who aren’t in school yet. Photo: Amy Jackson

Kathryn Murray is the hardworking parent of 2-year-old Latham and 3-month-old John. Her husband Jack works full-time, and Kathryn is pursuing a degree in nursing, so she’s the only person in their family who currently has homework. And although Latham has taken art and tumbling through Charlottesville Parks & Recreation, his extracurricular activities are still light.

But evenings with two kids aged 2 and under present plenty of other challenges. As Kathryn puts it, the evening rush to eat dinner, clean, spend time with Jack when he gets home and also try to get Latham to bed at a reasonable hour “is the most hectic time of the day.”

She has some tricks up her sleeve, however, including having an afternoon outing or walking to the park, which helps a lot during the after-nap time frame when Jack gets home. She also includes Latham in dinner preparation, which “helps to keep him calm and occupied,” she says. A couple of times a week the family switches up cooking with takeout or dinner with Jack’s family. Latham is in bed between 8 and 8:30pm, while baby John heads to bed around 10pm with his parents.

Elementary extracurriculars

Nichole Rustin-Paschal and her husband Marlin try to keep up with 8-year-old Akil’s two to three extracurricular activities a week. Photo: Amy Jackson
Nichole Rustin-Paschal and her husband Marlin try to keep up with 8-year-old Akil’s two to three extracurricular activities a week. Photo: Amy Jackson

Writer and lawyer Nichole Rustin-Paschal and her husband Marlin have an 8-year-old son named Akil who attends Venable Elementary. Akil is a busy guy, participating in two to three extracurriculars a week, including clubs at school, tae kwon do, soccer or swimming and, coming soon, piano.

Nichole shoulders after-school activity transportation and overseeing homework time, which happens at the dining room table or (and this made me smile in recognition) sometimes Akil will sit on the floor. She also makes dinner three to four times a week, while Marlin takes the lead one or two nights, and they head out for dinner or grab takeout for the remainder. Nichole says that not relying on all the excellent takeout or eating out for dinner is one of the family’s challenges. Akil winds down after dinner with bathtime and reading, and heads to bed around 8:30 or 9pm at the latest.

Nichole shares this excellent advice for evening parenting strategies: “The best thing for me to lower stress is to give Akil a clear plan about what’s on tap for the day and talk through with him what that means in terms of when he’ll have his snack and break, and what time we have to leave for places. If Akil understands the plan and is on board, then typically, we have a better afternoon and evening. I also have to recognize when he’s tired and provide space for him to relax.”

The creative life

Two-year-old Lucien is the only one in Megan and Heath Hillary’s household without extracurricular activities, while 15-year-old Inigo participates in theater, government and architecture. Photo: Amy Jackson
Two-year-old Lucien is the only one in Megan and Heath Hillary’s household without extracurricular activities, while 15-year-old Inigo participates in theater, government and architecture. Photo: Amy Jackson

Visual artist Megan Hillary and her husband Heath straddle the age divide with 15-year-old son Inigo, who attends Charlottesville High School, and 2-year-old son Lucien. Although Lucien doesn’t yet participate in after-school activities, Inigo more than fills his time with theater from three sources: Live Arts, CHS or Gorilla Theater Productions. And because he’s interested in pursuing architecture, he takes part in the after-school Architecture, Construction and Engineering program. There’s Youth Council, the teen arm of City Council and, most recently, he’s involved at the Ix Art Park.

Megan and Heath split the transportation needs, “depending on who’s nearby and available,” she says. The family generally cooks at home, and everyone participates in dinner prep except for Lucien. “We all have dishes we’ve perfected, and there are family favorites we request regularly,” says Megan. “Sometimes two of us pair up, most often it’s one of us solo.” Bedtimes are enforced, and age appropriate.

And while Megan acknowledges the difficulty of finding time for it all because “we’re all in the arts and we always have something going on,” she also recognizes the importance of creative outlets. “To manage stress overall, we strive to ensure we’re all pursuing something we thrive on, however small. Something that feeds our souls, away from the periodically high-anxiety demands of work and school.” Words to live by.

Kathyrn Murray is the one who has to worry about getting her homework done and have time for husband Jack, while tending to Latham and John, who aren’t in school yet.

Nichole Rustin-Paschal and her husband Marlin try to keep up with 8-year-old Akil’s two to three extracurricular activities a week.

Crown jewels

LeiLei Secor is paying her hefty UVA out-of-state tuition with proceeds from her jewelry business. Photo: Martyn Kyle
LeiLei Secor is paying her hefty UVA out-of-state tuition with proceeds from her jewelry business. Photo: Martyn Kyle

UVA second year juggles school work with her own jewelry business

Time management is tough for a lot of college kids. You’re away from home for the first time, and suddenly you don’t have teachers and parents breathing down your neck, reminding you to turn in your homework and setting curfews. Adjusting to a free-form college existence is challenging enough, what with trying to balance your newfound freedom and social life with that whole going-to-class thing. Now imagine making that transition while also running your own business.

LeiLei Secor, a UVA second year from upstate New York, did just that. Secor was only 16 when she sold her first piece of handmade jewelry on Etsy in the summer of 2012, and since then she’s made sales nearly every day. Oh, and she’s raked in upwards of $100,000. Ironically enough, the first piece she listed on Etsy hardly generated any attention.

“I listed my first bracelet and that didn’t sell,” Secor says. “None of my bracelets sold the first week. So I taught myself how to make wire jewelry, and I sold my first piece of wire jewelry the week after I had started.”

Secor says this was a crucial first lesson in adaptability when it comes to running a business. If something doesn’t work out the way you planned, try a different route. The macrame and beaded bracelets she’d enjoyed making since 10th grade didn’t seem to make an impression on the market, so she switched gears and learned to make delicate pieces of jewelry out of wire. Her bestselling items are simple wire rings, which feature shapes like hearts and music notes or the word “love” in cursive. Knuckle rings, which sit between the fingernail and middle knuckle, have become popular, too.

“There’s definitely more to it than just making it and selling it online,” Secor says. “You have to consider what the trends are, and how to market it so it’ll stand out amongst all the other listings.”

Unsurprisingly for a 19-year-old entrepreneur who’s been running her own business since high school, Secor plans to apply to the McIntire School of Commerce. If that doesn’t work out, her backup plan is studying economics and foreign affairs, but business is what makes sense to her.

“I’ve always been interested in the whole idea of start-ups, running your own business and being creative with it,” Secor says. “I really like the creativity behind it, and I think there’s an endless amount of opportunity in business. It’s something you can make to reflect your own personality, really take it and run with it if you’re passionate about it.”

As for how she manages it all, Secor says she genuinely loves the five or six hours a week she spends sitting down to create pieces with her own two hands that other people will wear and enjoy. It gets tough around the holidays, she says, what with the influx of orders coming in around the same time as finals, and she doesn’t expect it to get any easier in the coming years.

“I think I’ve learned a lot from the last year in terms of time management,” she says. “Hopefully as it becomes more difficult I’ll be able to adapt more easily.”

For more information about Secor and her jewelry, check out

–Samantha Baars, Laura Ingles and Miller Murray Susen

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