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UVA, Charlottesville Schools Partner on Lab School Project

The UVA Buford lab school will help Charlottesville middle school students develop technical skills.

Laura Hoxworth

Fueled by funds from the Virginia Department of Education, the University of Virginia is partnering with Charlottesville City Schools to design a lab school at Buford Middle School to teach computing skills through student-led, project-based learning.

The lab school is part of Virginia’s K-12 system, a public school associated with higher education institutions with the goal of developing innovative models of teaching and learning, often with a specific focus.

Last year, the General Assembly appropriated $100 million for the development of new lab schools throughout the commonwealth, including $5 million for planning grants to pay initial short-term costs associated with designing a new lab school.

The UVA Buford lab school would build on existing computer science partnerships in Charlottesville to help middle school students develop technical skills by solving real problems with computational tools.

“Most people know by now that computing skills are critical for our students’ future career opportunities,” said Jennie Chiu, an associate professor in the UVA School of Education and Human Development. “But research also tells us that computer and data science are powerful ways to engage students in meaningful experiences that deepen their understanding of themselves and the world around them.”

Consider a hypothetical 13-year-old who, walking to school every morning, notices that the sidewalks on some streets are falling apart. She brings up the issue at her lab school’s daily meeting, and with her teachers’ support, she and her classmates get to work. They analyze traffic patterns, they research policies and they dive into city datasets.

Collaborating with community leaders, one group of students creates and delivers a presentation to City Council on the costs and benefits of investing in safer sidewalks. Another group builds an app to chart safe walking paths.

In the sidewalk example, educators say students are practicing important computing skills like decomposing a complex problem and analyzing data. They’re also learning about social studies, critical thinking, civics, and other core learning objectives – all by engaging with a real-world problem that matters to them.

While student outcomes are the primary focus, the lab school plan includes another important goal: teacher development. Leveraging UVA’s top-ranked teacher education program, the school will be designed to develop educators’ expertise in planning and leading a learning environment that breaks out of the typical classroom mold.

“For any teacher, but particularly early-career or pre-service teachers, there is no substitute for the experience of applying concepts in a real classroom,” said Jillian McGraw, director of teacher education in the School of Education and Human Development. “We are thrilled about the chance to deepen our longstanding partnership with Charlottesville City School and bring both current teachers and teacher candidates some really valuable professional learning opportunities.”

The plan was developed using the latest research on youth development from experts at UVA’s Youth-Nex research center and Remaking Middle School initiative. The learning environment that the planning team envisions is carefully designed to support middle school students’ core developmental needs like autonomy, belonging and purpose.

Buford Principal Rodney Jordan said that the city is always interested in exploring new innovations for improving student learning. “Our students are bright, curious and eager to discover how they can make a difference in the world,” he said. “We appreciate the research-oriented approach that UVA brings to the table and look forward to pursuing this opportunity together.”

The school proposes to include resources and expertise from the local community. UVA’s Equity Center, School of Data Science and the School of Engineering’s Department of Computer Science will all be involved in bringing the school to life, with the help of local partners such as the Boys and Girls Club, Tech-Girls, Computers 4 Kids and Piedmont Virginia Community College.

“Here in Charlottesville, we are in a unique position of having all these valuable resources and expertise right in our backyard,” Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley said. “To be able to bring those together in service of our students would be a win for our entire community.”

The team is hard at work turning their vision into a detailed plan and a summer pilot program. Pending approval of the final proposal, the lab school would likely open in the fall of 2024.

“Given the rich history of collaboration between [city schools] and UVA, this lab school is a natural next step,” Stephanie Rowley, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, said. “We hope to provide a state and national model for how communities, school divisions, research universities and teacher education programs can collaborate to provide innovative and equitable education that improves student outcomes for middle school youth.”

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Laura Hoxworth