“Voice, agency, and influence are ours to give and receive,” says Debora Collins, assistant superintendent for student learning at Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia. That philosophy, mirrored by other organizations throughout the region—Charlottesville Public Schools, the University of Virginia, and ReInventED Lab, among others—has led to learning opportunities that have empowered students and spurred innovation in the Charlottesville community at large, an ecosystem that participates in the Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters (EdClusters) network.
EdClusters are local communities of practice that bring together educators, entrepreneurs, funders, researchers, and other community stakeholders (families, local government, nonprofits) to support innovative teaching and learning in their region. By working together, these partners form a network that is uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools. Charlottesville, located two hours south of Washington, D.C., is a powerful example of this model.
K-12 students in the Charlottesville area are served by Charlottesville Public Schools, Albemarle County Public Schools, and many other independently affiliated schools. The region is bursting with examples of youth entrepreneurship—from a festival that allows students to showcase their own work, to an effort with the National Writing Project to empower students to tell the stories of historic houses from underrepresented voices. Matthew Wheelock, Innovation Program Director at Curry School of Education, says the community’s growing list of programs, connections, and pathways is what makes the local ecosystem successful. He explains, “Bringing people together to have these conversations is a key part of what we’re thinking about. But the other piece is, how do we build in infrastructure that allows for and creates that connectivity in more of an ongoing way?”
All of this work is enveloped in the history of the region. This area of Virginia was a hub of the Confederacy. The esteemed historic homes that mark the region—Monticello, Montpelier, and Highland—were built and maintained by the forced labor of enslaved people before the Civil War. Operating schools within Albemarle County were built in a period of intentional segregation; in schools built exclusively for black students as recently as 1961, hallways are more narrow than those in the schools built exclusively for white students. The repercussions of this regional scarring still play out today, most notably last August when the nation watched as white supremacists rallied in the town square.
Within the footprint of the past and present, students in the region are determined to tell their own story and contribute their own inventions to the region’s history. Recently, Albemarle students were awarded a grant through singer John Legend’s nonprofit LRNG to build a new monument to Charlottesville and tell the region’s story from a more diverse perspective. Through field visits to sites like Montpelier and the University of Virginia, students studied what was memorialized and who made the decisions that resulted in those monuments. Students then created their own digital monument tributes that told stories of the region through methods like a mural that celebrated the diversity of their community, and a short film about the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, a site of burial for many of Charlottesville’s prominent African American residents in the 1800s and 1900s.
The spirit of creation and entrepreneurship extends across the ecosystem. The University of Virginia, a hub of innovative education programs like the Jefferson Education Exchange, The MOTIVATE Lab, The Darden/Curry Partners in Leadership Program, the MBA/MEd in Innovation in Education, and Nudge4 Solutions Lab, serves as a catalyst and convener of cross-sector innovators, both regional and national, to invent the schools of the future. Another program recently born out of the university, ReinventED Lab, is the brainchild of Keaton Wadzinski, a former undergraduate student at UVA who studied youth and social innovation. Wadzinski created ReInventED Lab with the mission of “making Charlottesville the shining example of what the future of school can look like for everyone.” The nonprofit achieves this mission by empowering students, designing custom curriculum, and supporting student entrepreneurialism; The TomTom Youth Summit is one such example.
The TomTom Youth Summit is a student-run, student-led opportunity to engage students regionally to participate in high energy competitions that inspire entrepreneurial thinking and creative problem-solving. Wadzinski attributes some of the success of the program to its partnership and affiliation with UVA. He says, “With the support of Curry, we basically have a nice tag team of where we can elevate and create new opportunities for student-driven learning in area schools.”
Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) and the greater Charlottesville region are a shining example of how communities can align energy and resources toward the shared goal of improving student and community outcomes. he region has succeeded in capitalizing on the energy and ideas of emerging leaders at all levels, and in setting a shared vision for success. As recently retired ACPS Superintendent Pam Moran puts it, the process of “getting to yes” has helped to build a regional culture that allows new ideas to emerge and thrive.
It is within this culture, for example, that ACPS science teacher Chris Stanek is empowered to identify new opportunities for learning, earning himself the nickname “The Grant Machine” as he develops student projects like caring for the local watershed (see video below). In another example of student agency, Moran cited a group of ACPS students who conducted research that ultimately supported the passing of a bill in a local house of representatives.
Beyond these cases, middle and high school students benefit from the region’s Charlottesville Business Innovation Council “Tech Tour.” On this annual event, students visit more than 60 selected companies for hands-on visits to meet employees and experience the use of technology in unique and specialized operations. This day-long technology tour, which is about to celebrate its fifteenth year with ever-growing and evolving participation, “exposes students to the challenging and diverse career possibilities offered by [Charlottesville’s] regional technology community. The tour is designed to help them envision themselves as technology employees, professionals and entrepreneurs in the next wave of tech advancements in [the] area.”
While so many amazing opportunities are already in motion, there are always more approaching the starting line. Bob Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, notes, “We are purposeful in not being complacent.” When partnership opportunities come his way, while not always the right fit, he always takes the first call. It’s important to find strengths and look for assets in every individual and partnership.
Pianta says the culture of this collaborative ecosystem “is rooted in an open-mindedness and a recognition that no single person has the answer, so, there’s a willingness to roll up your sleeves.“ Adult leaders in the Charlottesville region believe that students should also lead, and they aren’t afraid to create and support opportunities to do just that.