Visiting the library of Woodbrook Elementary School, Dr. Pamela Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, was in her element. A group of third-graders were busy showcasing their reading skills for a pair of small collies, therapy dogs provided by the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA. The students rested on pillows or sprawled across the carpeted floor, gently petting the pups and digging into an array of fairy tales and how-things-work books. Not content with watching at a distance, Moran found a seat in the heart of the group, her smile growing larger as she listened to the students.
Stroking the dogs’ footpads, a student asked, “Why are they so rough?’
The SPCA volunteer explained the coarse and leathery flesh was similar to the soles of our shoes, and Moran said she was thinking: “These are the experiences that close children’s learning opportunity gaps.”
As the students filed back to class, Moran took the opportunity to touch base with reading specialist Allison Greene, asking if she felt the weekly program was helping Woodbrook’s students.
“I can’t tell you how much the program means to our students,” said Greene. “They benefit so much. [The moment they leave] they’re already asking when they get to do it again.”
With a smile of genuine satisfaction, Moran watched the students go.
“Our children learn as they move through our schools that community is important and that giving of ourselves to community makes a difference,” Moran would later write in her blog on the school system’s website, reflecting on the system’s partnership with the SPCA. “Our vision for all learners incorporates more than just academic success as an outcome. We also want young people who develop and sustain empathy over time and a value for community. This matters in families, our community and ultimately when our high school graduates become young adults.”
Creating a learning community
As far as accolades and recognition go, Moran has had a big year. In late 2015, based on recommendations levied by the state superintendent of public instruction and advisers from seven of the commonwealth’s top education organizations, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents named Moran State Superintendent of the Year. The distinction placed her in the running for the American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year award. She was then selected from the pool of 49 contenders as one of four finalists to be considered for the top prize, which will be awarded at the organization’s national conference in mid-February.
“I am a representative of a wonderful team,” says Moran. “Any honor I receive comes because of the stories I can tell about our community, our educational staff and our children.”
To put matters more tangibly: Since Moran took the helm of Albemarle’s presently 13,600-student district in 2005, as the Great Recession deepened and the number of Albemarle’s economically disadvantaged students rose, the on-time graduation rate among that population increased by nearly 5 percent (to 86.5 percent), bringing the tally higher than the national average of 74.6 percent, according to the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. In addition, the dropout rate fell by 40 percent, leading the school system’s dropout rate at-large to dip to around 2 percent (compared with the 7 percent national average, as estimated by the Pew Research Center). Also worth noting is the number of at-risk students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses increased by nearly 100 percent; the number of economically disadvantaged students (those eligible for free or reduced meals) earning college credits increased by more than 100 percent; and SAT scores within this population rose by an average 32 points in reading, 26 points in writing and seven points in math.
But Moran is quick to point out that her focus lies with the students themselves, that such outcomes are inherent to maintaining a student-centered directive. In fact, Moran says the biggest hurdle she faced upon taking over the superintendent role—and still faces today—was figuring out how to transform an education system with a well-established bias toward old assessment models of accountability that she felt didn’t serve the students. Along these lines, standardized test score averages are not included in the county’s fact sheet.
“Standardized tests may be an easy way to measure specific content acquisition,” says Moran. “But I don’t know a [single] teacher who wants to teach to the test, as the approach necessarily emphasizes a narrow range of skills and takes time away from learning competencies essential to success after school.”
For Moran, this antiquated approach ultimately results in students having a negative learning experience: the development of a sense of education as an obligation that has been foisted upon them by external agents (parents, teachers, principals, society, etc.); a viewpoint of learning as an imposition they will eventually outgrow. As such, discovering and implementing alternatives is extremely important. If properly executed, these alternatives can lead to impressing a lifelong love of learning upon an entire student population, which, Moran believes, will result in the development of useful skills such as problem solving, effective communication, an aptitude for creativity and the ability to work well in teams.
“You’d think within a school division with the measurables we have you’d find an attitude of complacency, a sense that it’s all good enough,” says Phil Giaramita, strategic communications officer for Albemarle County Schools. “But in an era where so much in America has changed”—according to the World Economic Forum, in 2010, four out of every 10 high-paying jobs didn’t exist in 2004 and an estimated 60 percent of the jobs future graduates will hold have yet to be invented—“education hasn’t changed much since the 1940s. I don’t think there’s anything that drives Pam more than seeing that discrepancy and being determined to find a way to prepare kids for the 2020s, as opposed to the 1950s.”
Under Moran’s watch, this mission of innovation has led to the system-wide adoption of what amounts to a progressively minded mantra.
“She’s always talking about the greater learning community,” says Giaramita. “She’s always asking and encouraging everyone else to ask: What can we do to make things better?”
This penchant for making things better is something that’s been with Moran throughout her 40-year career in education, from her beginnings as a middle school science teacher in 1975 in Orange County, to her serving as principal at Stony Point Elementary for 10 years and her eventual rise to the post of superintendent.
“In my opinion, no profession is more important than education,” says Moran. “Educators change the lives of children and education advances civilization. From the first time I tutored kids in a summer job as a college student I felt drawn to teach. I first considered becoming a school principal when some close teacher colleagues encouraged me to pursue that role, but, in essence, I still consider my responsibility to be that of a teacher.”
Establishing a new model
Many of Moran’s accomplishments in the school district occurred during a time when public school systems across the nation were in the throes of a devastating and largely unprecedented budgetary crisis. According to the National Center for Public Education, “78 percent of districts cut budgets in the 2010 [/2011 school year]…[with] 30 percent of districts cutting their budgets between 11 and 25 percent.” Albemarle County Public Schools was no exception.
“What was so interesting about the way Pam dealt with the recession was the fact that when other school divisions were laying off teachers, shutting down arts programs and reducing physical education hours in order to weather the downturn, we didn’t do any of those things,” says Vice Chair of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and former Albemarle County School Board member Diantha McKeel. “Pam was very creative in her ability to be a good steward through the tough times, making the kinds of choices she felt would have as little negative impact on the students as possible.”
What did this process look like on the ground level?
“Pam brought in consultants from VCU to make recommendations for where the cuts could be made to avoid laying off teachers and increasing class size,” says Giaramita. “Ultimately, they pointed to the central office, electricity and transportation.”
Based on the assessment’s suggestions, bus routes were reworked to be more efficient. Updates were made in policy regarding more efficient usage of energy. And, finally, changes were made at the central office.
McKeel says, prior to the recession, there were a number of directors operating out of the county office building whose job it was to oversee policy regarding instructional divisions, such as high school history, math or science. In the opinion of the consultants, it was here cuts should be made.
But how to do it without adversely affecting the teachers and the students they serve? Moran opted to try something new.
“Pam introduced what [came to be known as] the Instructional Coaching Model,” says McKeel. “What this did was reduce the number of administrative personnel in the county office building”—ultimately eliminating nine positions and thus resolving fiscal woes—“while putting into place coaching models for the teachers.”
Teachers from each school within a given division (typically three schools per division) were encouraged to apply for positions within their respective areas of expertise—i.e. math, science, English. Once selected, these teaching experts underwent intensive training (a program Moran developed in-house with assistance from Albemarle’s teaching community and other education consultants) to promote state-of-the-art best-teaching practices and serve as mentors for other teachers at their schools. Once the coaches were in place, new teachers or those facing a problematic classroom situation were encouraged to consult their coach for advice. Because this coach was often someone teachers had previously worked with on an almost daily basis, the relationship was more casual, friendly and more collaborative than that between a teacher and an administrator she may have little contact with.
“It resulted in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration,” says McKeel. “Teachers got excited about working together to become better teachers, and the system provided them with a direct resource to help make that happen.”
Additionally, out of the 22 coaches, there were three to five lead coaches responsible for conducting research, discovering new approaches to classroom teaching and working with administrators—including Moran—to disseminate the best practices to the other coaches, who would then pass them on to the teachers.
“The idea was that, as things in education change so fast, the model can serve as a means of making teachers aware of new developments, and meanwhile provide them with a direct mentor relationship,” says Giaramita.
Although the coaching model had been used in the private sector for years and has, since Albemarle’s incorporation of the approach in 2006, been established as a nationwide best practice, 10 years ago it was on the cutting edge.
“High-quality coaching lies somewhere near the crossroads of good teaching and educational therapy,” says San Francisco principal, coaching expert and Edutopia contributor Shane Safir. “Done right, it focuses on teachers first, helps them develop their best teaching self and [can foster] an educational community that is inclusive and constructed from the ground up.”
And behind the implementation of the coaching system lays Moran’s philosophy that educational innovation should always center on the classroom and be evaluated in terms of whether it effectively empowers and enriches the exchange between teacher and student.
“I am a strong believer that excellent ideas come from inside classrooms,” says Moran. “Our best education ideas come from teachers who experiment, collaborate and problem-solve to reach every student. When we see that a model works, we look to share it across schools so that others can use the model or make adjustments that fit their needs.”
In addition to shifting the impetus of supervisory oversight away from an administrative bureaucracy and into the hands of a support system overseen by the teachers themselves, the ICM provided high-performing teachers an opportunity to pursue greater earning potential while continuing to teach. And beyond a boost in morale and the creation of a system that is used as a best-practices model for schools around the nation, including Charlottesville City Schools, the ICM allowed Albemarle County schools to keep the overall reduction in classroom teaching staff to below 1 percent—in 2009, the state average for such reductions was 5 percent.
When combing through the details of Moran’s approach, it becomes clear the much-celebrated statistical yield of the superintendent’s policies is the byproduct of a managerial style often described by co-workers and colleagues as “student-centered.”
“I want all our children to walk across the graduation stage ready for adult life,” says Moran. “This means supporting learners in partnership with their parents to enter adulthood with what they need to be good citizens, contributors to their communities and lifelong learners.”
However, as shoot-from-the-hip simple as this language may come off, for Moran, this process entails what is often, by the estimations of critics and advocates alike, defined as a progressive agenda.
Moran believes students must be placed at the center of an active educational process featuring multiple learning pathways responsive to the children’s individual interests and learning differences.
“When I think classroom, I think a bunch of kids,” says Lisa Molinaro, a former teacher who’s now the principal at Woodbrook Elementary School. “As educators, Pam encourages us to make sure we’re looking at all of that child, doing what we need to do to reach that child while recognizing it’s always going to require a different pathway.”
Fostering innovative ideas
In 2013, Moran asked each of Albemarle County Schools’ 26 principals to “…work with their school staff to submit proposals on how they would leverage technology, promote active learning and team with one another, all to increase student engagement with the curriculum.”
According to Molinaro, the notion was that, for each principal to come up with an idea pertinent to the learning community they oversaw, they would invariably have to consult their teachers. Then, when principals got together with one another and shared theses ideas, it would kick start a process of district-wide creative collaboration. As opposed to one or two pretty good ideas trickling in, each school was pitched into a dialogue concerning what might be changed to make things better.
At some point during this time period, Molinaro recalls visiting the Woodbrook cafeteria with Moran. After consulting with her teachers, Molinaro discovered that the cafeteria experience was a source of much lament. Students resented the idea of sitting in assigned seats dictated by classroom and place in line. Instead, they wanted to mingle at tables with peers from other classes. Strolling through the geometrically arranged aisles alongside the superintendent, Molinaro gestured toward the tables.
“I said, ‘Pam, these are prison tables, [we] have to get new tables,’” laughs Molinaro. “At which point, she turned to me and said, ‘Write it up and let’s make it happen.’”
Rather than institutional-blue rectangles with bolted-on benches laid out in row after depressing row, what Woodbrook’s teachers envisioned was a sociable array of dinner tables, a café-like environment conducive to conversation and a pleasurable dining experience.
“Now you walk into our cafeteria [and] there are no straight lines,” says Molinaro. “There are tables for four, six, eight, and the kids love it. They go back to class happier, less tense, full of energy and ideas, and more ready to learn than [they] did before.”
In the end, each of the 26 proposals offered by school staff and principals was funded.
“Unsurprisingly, the ideas that came back were exciting,” recalls Moran. “And they worked because they were developed by the staff who knew their students and school communities better than anyone else.”
From 2010 to 2014, an overhaul of the Monticello High School library, spearheaded by librarians Mae Craddock and Joan Ackroyd, resulted in a revamped and renamed Media Center receiving the highest award bestowed by the National School Board Association. The Magna Award, given annually to the one school division in the nation that is “taking bold and innovative steps to improve the lives of their students and their communities,” corresponded with an increase of annual student visits to the space, from 400 to a staggering 70,000.
The change occurred somewhat by accident.
“The librarian that preceded me at MHS, David Glover, had a passion for electronic music,” says Craddock. “So he transformed an old storage room into a makeshift digital music studio, which became extremely popular among the students.”
When Glover became an English teacher and Craddock took over, impressed by the kind of intensive, student participation the studio was inspiring, she thought: Why not develop the concept?
“I saw that the hands-on learning was getting the students involved and excited,” says Craddock. “[And as my] affinity was in engineering, I decided to try bringing robotics, as well as construction tech items”—such as a 3-D printer—“into the library and see what would happen.”
What happened was the library became even more popular. So popular, in fact, Moran decided to not only support the program but expand it. (Costs ran around $1 million, and funding was provided, in part, by leasing the updated space to area businesses in the summer.) This led to a complete reimagining of the library into an innovative, multipurpose center, a Learning Commons.
“What we did was take the concept of a library and tweak it to meet the demands of the 21st century,” says Craddock, who is now the librarian at Burley Middle School. “It’s become a community-oriented space where students can come and say, ‘I have an idea,’ and be provided with access to the tools and expertise to turn that vision into reality.”
While there are still bookshelves, the stacks are largely gone. In their stead, there’s ample comfortable seating—plush cushions abound. A student-run, tech help desk allows less-savvy students to do things like utilize a 3-D printer to “turn their creative ideas into functional products, get help repairing laptops or assistance with other tech problems,” Craddock says. Storage rooms have been transformed into design spaces featuring wall-length whiteboards, tables and computers. The music studio has been expanded, and is used by students to write, record and mix their own music, create podcasts, etc. There’s a writer’s café, a poetry corner and even a sewing area. Teachers frequently conduct classes in the space, enjoying the ample light, high ceilings and lyceum-esque atmosphere. Students come and go throughout the day, congregating in small groups, working on projects, discussing ideas or simply socializing.
“By the end of each year I knew the names of every graduating student,” says Craddock. “It was an amazing transformation that changed the way our students thought about school.”
The thing about each of these examples is how little, if anything, they have to do with affecting some test-based, numerically measurable result. Instead, the impetus for reform stems from a desire to nurture student curiosity, enjoyment and graduates with a lifelong penchant for learning.
“When I watched Burley middle-schoolers in a Socratic seminar earlier this year, debating conflicts in a novel while their teacher listened and asked an occasional question, one student said to me, ‘Teachers in this school value that we think for ourselves,’” says Moran. “When our kids analyze, evaluate and create, whether using a laptop for research or cardboard to make a science project, they are learning to use competencies that will stand them in good stead for their lifetime.”
–Eric J. Wallace