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Seven Pathways of Educational Environments

The Albemarle County Public Schools District is a geographically large and socio-economically diverse district of almost 14,000 students and 1200 teachers in 26 schools surrounding Charlottesville, Virginia. It spans 726 square miles, from the Appalachian Trail to Virginia’s Piedmont plain, including an urban ring, suburban communities, and low density rural areas. Schools buses travel 14,000 miles daily. The percentage of elementary school students who receive free or reduced lunch ranges from 5% in one school to 79% in another. The distribution of students who are English as Second Language Learners (ESOL) ranges from less than 5% to more than 50% across schools. Each school has vastly different needs and available community resources. Teachers throughout the district also vary across background as well as in experience, skill levels and teacher education training. No broadband, cable or 4G commercial service is possible in 70% of this mountainous community.

The Challenge

These diverse geographic and demographic circumstances challenge district leaders to address opportunity gaps that exist among learners and to develop the capacity of educators to personalize learning that is responsive to the varying needs of learners. To empower students with lifelong learning competencies identified by the district means that teachers must invest in using curricula, pedagogies, and assessment that reflect those competencies and build and sustain the expertise to support transformative learning.
Consequently, Albemarle County Public Schools must provide teachers with multiple tiers of differentiated professional development opportunities that inculcate a unifying culture of lifelong learning for both adult learners and young people.

The Solution

Albemarle’s strategic learning design plan articulates “Seven Pathways” to transform and support an educational environment of lifelong learning through these themes: (1) choice and comfort; (2) instructional tolerance; (3) university design for learning/individualized learning; (4) maker-infused curriculum; (5) project/problem/passion-based learning; (6)interactive technology; and (7) connectivity. Albemarle leaders believe that these principles apply to teachers as much as to students. For example, just as elementary students can create their own “make to learn” projects or whether to read an e- or paper book, teachers can embrace their own choices for professional development from social media to more traditional face-to-face professional workshops to support their personal development and learning. The teachers, for example, might, in the comfort of their own homes, use Pinterest to find innovative ideas for making their classrooms more comfortable for kids. Or they may attend professional development field trips to Chicago’s Children’s Museum, the World Maker Faire in New York, or game developers’ conferences where they will be encouraged to collaborate, observe, ask questions, and imagine. District leaders do not want teachers to be limited by traditional professional development but rather to select from growth oppoortunities that range along an informal to formal continuum of experiences.
Twitter stands out as the social learning network of choice for staff at Albemarle. Use is widespread and effectively modeled by Superintendent Pam Moran and other district leaders. Teachers, principals, and students throughout the district use Twitter to share what’s going on in their class rooms, posting images and videos of creative student work (made possible by getting permission from parents at the beginning of each year) and using a common hashtag, making activities within the schools visible to students, educators, and community members alike. Teachers becomes content producers of professional development for others just as their connectivity through Skype, blogging platforms, Facebook, YouTube, Vine, Instagram and Twitter allows them to collaborate with other teachers and their classrooms and learn within a global communication network.
When Albemarle leaders began to encourage use of Twitter, they used a private Yammer network, which they referred to as “Twitter on training wheels,” to help teachers become comfortable with sharing. They also used online backchannels, such as TodaysMeet, in face-to-face meetings to instill habits of online sharing.
Teachers in Albemarle can receive continuing education units for recertification while teaching and learning through hashtag communities and blogs, professional learning networks (PLN), MOOCS, and online conference/webinar events. Rather than over-filtering the Internet, the district has through policy provided for quite open access for learning purposes while still addressing CIPA requirements. In addition, all school networks are partitioned to make available public wireless access to guests of our district. Student use of personal devices (BYOD) is encouraged to create more authentic tool uses than available through district 1:1 and tool crib models.
To combat connectivity problems in our diverse communities, the district has installed its own fiber cable to all schools and is now operating the first phase of a 4G LTE network, with the expectation that all unserved, underserved, and economically challenged areas of the county will have fast Internet access for students in their homes via 4G within 3 years. This has occurred through repurposing of local capital funding without increasing the technology budget.
Albemarle district leaders stress that this culture of learning didn’t develop overnight but took years of sustained effort, with strong modeling from district and school leaders. They are quick to note that the culture is not ubiquitous and may never be. Their focus is to encourage learning by helping teachers embrace whatever tools and processes make that happen.


  • Find a way to say yes to innovative ideas. When you say yes to a teacher’s idea you are giving them permission to accept a child’s ideas.
  • Observe what learning spaces such as cafes and open offices look like outside of school and use those as models for contemporary learning spaces inside schools.
  • “Aim small, miss small.” Use rapid prototyping and testing systems to mitigate against large scale system project design flaws.
  • Acknowledge that mistakes will happen but premortem potential system failures to ensure soft landings, no crashes.

Additional Resources

From Albemarle County Public Schools:

From the U.S. Department of Education:

District Point of Contact

Phone: 434-296-5826