Back-to-School 2019: Pennycuff talks modern learning spaces as leaders work toward new school

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 4, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

Education has evolved since Walton’s construction in the 1960s

PRINCE GEORGE – As one generation finishes their primary and secondary education and another goes in, with each passing year and decade, it becomes more and more likely that the make-up of their educational experience will differ as advancements in learning and the application of technology continues to transform the landscape of the modern classroom.

That transformation brings many school divisions, Prince George County Public Schools included, to a crossroads of determining how to modernize facilities and learning spaces to support more technology-focused education while also planning for future evolution during the decades to come.

In 2017, the school division’s core committee presented a multi-million dollar proposal to the Prince George Board of Supervisors that called for the replacement of two elementary schools – Walton and Beazley – and millions of dollars in renovations to Prince George High School. While plans for the high school have not advanced past that initial presentation two years ago, both supervisors and the county’s school board have been actively engaged in conversations regarding the construction of at least one new elementary school in the county to replace one of the two schools that have been identified as being at the end of their useful life. 

According to school officials, Walton and Beazley elementary schools, both open-air, campus-style buildings, date back to the 1960s.

Entering her first year as the school division’s superintendent following the retirement of longtime educator Renee Williams, Dr. Lisa Pennycuff gave an update on where things are, two years removed from the core committee’s first presentation to supervisors.

“The members of the Prince George County School Board are working closely with the members of the board of supervisors to move forward with the replacement of the two schools that have been identified or deemed to be at the end of their useful lives,” she detailed. “Our community is very much in support of moving forward with the replacement of those schools and conversations are being held and we are hopeful that together we can move forward soon.”

Recently, following the school board’s fact-finding efforts focused around the possible utilization of the Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act, PPEA for short, as a funding avenue for the schools’ replacement, supervisors were briefed by the county’s legal counsel earlier this summer. Through PPEA, public bodies, like school boards and boards of supervisors are able to “partner with private entities to bring private sector expertise to bear on public projects and encourage innovative approaches to financing construction and renovation,” like schools and treatment plants, among others.

While being different than traditional procurement, which, according to county officials, “is generally considered the most orderly approach for localities with favorable bond ratings and credit worthiness,” with the county possesses in its AA+ bond rating, PPEA and design-build proposals are “generally more expensive to finance.” In addition, assistant county attorney Andrea Erard relied remarks from S.B. Ballard, the company that presented the PPEA information to the school board earlier this year that “the contractor usually likes to have more than one project and, I think he stated, a minimum of two schools, ideally three schools,” an idea that has not been considered often during the discussion between boards as, according to more recently available figures, a single school would cost upwards of $32 million.

They were also advised that PPEA doesn’t “give [the county] the ability to afford something you couldn’t otherwise afford,” and the financing avenue is “a viable option for those counties and cities that might not have a strong bond rating.”

Funding remains a sticking point for the project as tax increases to help fund the project were not included in the current-year budget nor has any action taken place that would utilize dollars from the county’s fund balance to pay for the early stages of the project, roughly “$2 million to $3 million” something mentioned by Pennycuff in the early spring as been looked at following the county’s initial budget presentation. 

“The school division is hopeful that the Board of Supervisors believes that the first year of this process can be initiated with funding from the County fund balance,” she said. “This will allow Prince George County Public Schools to begin the construction process, and the board of supervisors could avoid a tax increase for the community related to this construction until the second year of the elementary school building process.”

The Prince George School Board has been consistent in their statements regarding the construction of new schools, saying the first new school built will serve as the replacement for Walton Elementary. (Michael Campbell)

Some progress seemingly has taken place in regards to a location after much of 2018 was spent with supervisors and school board members working to find common ground on a site for, what the school board says will be Walton Elementary School’s replacement. In June, School Board Chairman Robert Cox, Jr. said they were interested in a plot of land presented to them by the board of supervisors’ leadership but, the location of that property has yet to be disclosed publicly. When asked, Cox did confirm the property “is a different location” than the ones presented over the past year, such as the Yancey property along Route 156, Middle Road, or the current site of Walton Elementary School along Courthouse Road.

While plenty of moving parts remain in regards to this project, there are a number of constants that go unchanged, namely, the need for any new facility to be state-of-the-art and capable of being used in ways that harness current technology but are also capable of growing alongside technology’s increasing involvement in the classroom. When asked, Pennycuff explained one of the challenges with aging facilities like Walton and Beazley elementary schools is connectivity – be it, internet or electrical. 

“For us, it is the connectivity and wiring that is necessary for the technology that is used,” the superintendent detailed, noting there are some essential elements that should be included to support today’s landscape of educating.

“In this time and day, we need to have schools that are built for one-to-one personal devices for each student,” Pennycuff explained. “Even though we don’t have those yet, we need to be prepared that this is the direction we will move in so we need to have our infrastructure set up to support that.”

She continued, “We need to have smaller rooms where interventions can take place for children who may need additional help. We need classrooms that are large enough to support movement, stations, and teachings. It used to be children would come in and they would sit in a designated space, we find today that children do better when we can get move movement in. Our children, as we are working to move toward personalized learning through station teaching and other methods, they move around the rooms so, the rooms need to be a little bit larger to accommodate the room.”

The superintendent noted that engagement with children in the classroom has transformed since the days of when Walton was constructed in the 1960s, highlighting station teaching specifically.

“For example, if I taught a lesson on place value and then, I taught a lesson to everyone in 15 minutes. Then we broke out into three different groups. One group sits in their seats and does practice at their seats while another group goes to the computer, and one group goes to the teacher and maybe works on whiteboards and does additional problems so perhaps the teacher can see what they are struggling with and what they understand,” Pennycuff detailed. “Then, the group that is working on the computer is doing additional practice and it could be on something they hadn’t mastered from before so they received additional instruction on it and now they are getting additional practice because that was something they needed to continue to work on.”

She elaborated, “Then, the group that finishes their practice at their seats may be able to play a game related to place value with another group and then you rotate every 25 minutes. You are restarting the children’s attention spans by engaging them in different activities and keeping them with you and being able to sustain their learning.”

As for the current status of the new school’s development, following a work session in late July, supervisors have reviewed their funding agreement with the school division, which provides language relating to the use of tax increases for school capital projects, and sent their changes to the school board for consideration and feedback. 

A revised memorandum of understanding may be presented to supervisors as early as October after the school board is given time to review and respond to the proposed changes.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
Send Us Your News Tips or Report an Error

Leave a Reply