RADFORD — A plan is underway to fix up its school buildings — and now an infusion of state grant money is being used to work on curriculum and scheduling.
The school system received more state grant money to continue developing its innovative learning approach at the high school. It was the third installment of $50,000 in as many years, with the latest announced last week by the governor’s office. The funds have been used to work toward developing an integrated program that combines core curriculum to create inquiry-based learning and real-world experiences to engage students, Assistant Superintendent Ellen Denny said.
Many of the ideas Radford is implementing came from traveling around the state to school divisions in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Virginia Beach and Martinsville, according to Denny. Collaboration between students as well as teachers was a recurring theme in the schools they visited.
One group project last year using multiple disciplines was when Radford High students built a “directional sign post” (visualize the ones with arrows pointing in different directions) to various South American countries using knowledge learned in the classroom. Denny said students also used video production skills to record their presentations and broadcast them. Shop classes built the signs. Math was used to map coordinates, and geography was used to make sure the signs were pointing in the right direction. And culinary classes made foods from the different countries.
“We had a variety of disciplines come together to make that project work. It was something the students and teachers both really enjoyed working on,” she said.
The changes stem from a collaborative effort by administrators and teachers led by Denny, according to Superintendent Rob Graham. She’s worked in the system for 20 years as a teacher, principal and most recently the director of instruction before being promoted to her latest role. Denny said ideas are also being implemented at John Dalton Intermediate School, which houses 7th- and 8th-graders and is connected to the high school. She said that students and parents have been asked for their input as well.
Another change that’s happened with the grant funding: High school students are now switching to a hybrid block schedule that will have seven 50-minute periods on Monday, Tuesday and Friday, three longer periods on Wednesday and four on Thursday. Also changing with the schedule is how lunch will operate. Students will now have what is called “one lunch,” a one-hour lunch where all 9th- through 12th-grade students will eat at the same time and then be allowed to complete various activities around the school during or after they have eaten. Administrators said some of the activities available will be exercise time in the gym, studying in the library, completing homework, extra tutoring from teachers or even just relaxing.
“Students these days are just as busy as we [adults] between a full day of school and all of the extracurricular activities students are involved in. We worked a lot on developing this schedule and believe it is going to work great for our kids,” Denny said.
School Board Chair Lee Slusher said she is thrilled about the changes taking place at the school.
“We are a small system with oftentimes limited resources but I believe we are as good as any school system in the state when it comes to growing and working towards giving our kids the best education possible,” she said.
Another benefit to the new schedule is on Wednesdays kids will begin their first class just after 9 a.m. as opposed to the 7:30 a.m. start time the rest of the week, Denny said.
“Teachers haven’t had an opportunity where they can collaborate together at the same time until this year. This will allow them to work together and share new ideas while also getting the chance to talk about how to help certain students with patterns that may be occurring in the classroom,” she said. “It is usually a mad dash for teachers throughout the school day, so we believe this will really help.”
Another product of their research led to Dalton receiving renovated classrooms that are more conducive to group learning, with movable desks and tables and tools in the classroom that allow the teacher to deviate from traditional teaching methods and allowing for more group activities.
“These classrooms are going to be really great for our kids. We already had a few but now all 13 classrooms at Dalton are set up this way. We hope to also implement this at the high school when we have the funding,” Graham said.
The renovation also came with Promethean smart boards — technology that allow teachers to do a variety of things in the classroom that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
Denny acknowledges that there will likely be hiccups in the first year, but she said that her staff is ready and available to help smooth the transition however it can. These types of thing have started to filter in the lower level as well. Elementary students at Belle Heth also work on group projects throughout the year.
As far as her inspiration for getting the school system to embrace these changes, Denny said it was simple.
“I think it’s cause we love children,” she said. “I’m an elementary veteran teacher, but I have three young adults at home and listening to their passions and what inspires them, there’s no reason you can’t do that in school.”