Progressive Learning and School Systems

One particularly fine March morning I jumped in my truck for a ride over to the Giles County Public School Board office. My wife follows me onto the porch and we both breathe deeply. The early morning air is redolent with mountain laurel, sage, and hints of rosemary, redbud and peach blossoms. We inspect the garden beds and watch the mist roll off the river.

These vistas are why we moved here. Honestly, with children not being foremost in our plans when we did move here, we really didn’t even consider the school system. Having lived here for as long as we have, we’ve heard things, mostly good, about the schools but we’d never taken the opportunity to formulate our own opinions.

Laura reminds as I leave to allow plenty of time to get there, as I inevitably get side-tracked by something while I’m out. Yesterday I ended up helping a neighbor get his flock of simple-minded yet exuberantly enthusiastic Guineas out of the road. They had determined that my old ford was the perfect hiding spot – the problem was I was driving down the road when they made this determination. Another day I ended up at a neighbor’s farm to taste fresh greenhouse tomatoes. Amazing. I snagged a couple of green ones for a co-worker who has bemoaning the lack of green tomatoes this time of year. These are all even more reasons why we love it here!

Dr. Terry Arbogast has invited me tour the Giles county school system, along with Alisa Moody with Wild Country Studios and other local business owners. I feel honored as a writer to have been asked to tag along. Alisa and I, even though we’ve been here long enough to consider ourselves as locals, really aren’t and so we were in for a real treat to discover just how impressive the schools are.

There is a teaching concept which has been around a long time that has proven over and over again to work called a “Community of Learners.” Within this concept, teaching extends into to all aspects of the child’s life, including parents, community members, teachers, principals, business leaders – everyone is involved, not just the educators and the children. Everyone cares; for what better good can there be for a community than to educate its children?

Nowhere have I seen this more evident than witnessed during our tour of the schools. Dr. Arbogast knew most everyone by name, from the Principals to the Teachers to the students. He was greeted politely and enthusiastically everywhere he went. Students ran up to shake his hand and tell him their plans. He stopped to listen to everyone, no matter what. It was a testament to the integrity of the school system that not one person appeared to be apprehensive at the rather sudden and unannounced presence of the School Superintendent!

We began our tour in my case at Eastern Elementary, near the eastern border of Giles County just off Rt. 460. Dr. Arbogast proudly pointed out how the school had been remodeled and modernized, with skylights in rooms that had previously not had windows, installed modern security systems and improved ways to keep students safe. Everywhere that we went, safety was of the main concern.

Giles County High school, located near the new Carillion Hospital in Pearisburg, was a delight to behold. Sporting new and improved bleachers systems for their athletic fields, this building has too been remodeled with the addition of a math wing along with other features. Nearly all the schools have greenhouses where students can study ecology, biology and learn about gardening. I was so impressed at Narrows Elementary/Middle School by the biology teacher, who was busily working with her students in an outdoor garden that they have planted themselves utilizing seeds started in the greenhouse! It is rare to see the kind of dedication that these teachers demonstrate.

All the campuses have stunning views of the Valley and Ridge Province of Virginia. Students from Narrows High School were breathless with excitement at a recent field trip to the Greenbrier Hotel, where Cold War History was made real by a visit to the nuclear fallout bunker. Photography students were merrily taking pictures on this beautiful day and I was quickly over my head in conversations about aperture and shutter speed, opting at that moment to catch back up with Dr. Arbogast.

All the schools demonstrate up-to-date technology, including the use of SMART boards, SMART tables, and impressive computer labs in every school, most of which were assembled and maintained by students at the technical center. Each school was clean, the students were happy and engrossed in learning and each teacher was heavily involved with their class.

Located adjacent to the Giles County High School, the Giles County Technology Center is one of the most impressive learning environments I have visited. Courses are offered to Junior and Senior students as well as adults in trades such as construction, CADD, metal work, automotive technology, nursing, cosmetology, pre-engineering and machine technology. The students compete on state and national levels and have won many awards based on their efforts.

Students can also, through distance learning, attend classes at the New River Community College and receive up to 40 transferable credits towards their Undergraduate degrees at any college of their choice. Students graduating from Giles County High Schools received over $250,000 in scholarships and awards for college last year. For a school system that in its entirety approximately 2400 students, that is an impressive number. Each school is accredited, Narrows Elementary is a Title One school and each school is staffed with teachers who truly care about their students and their community.

From my visit, I am not surprised. Everywhere I looked, I saw the determination, care, love, respect and sense of community that can make any school system anywhere succeed. We just happen to have it right here.

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