May 24, 2023

Renovated space at Danville's George Washington High School ready to launch ninth grade academy, new era of learning

George Washington High School to debut ninth grade academy next week.

Danville School Board members not only viewed refreshed space for George Washington High School’s new ninth grade academy Monday, they also caught a glimpse of what the rest of the facility will look like once all phases of renovation are complete.

Danville Public Schools Superintendent Angela Hairston led Monday’s tour highlighting the upgraded area and philosophy behind how classrooms, offices and collaborative areas for student, teachers and administrators will set a new standard for education.

The ninth grade academy itself launches a new era and is a first for Danville Public Schools.

George Washington High School Principal Reyhan Deskins, center, explains concepts of the ninth grade academy on a tour of renovated space Monday.

Renovations started in April for the area of GW that will be dedicated for freshmen, all courtesy of the 1% sales tax referendum passed by city voters in 2021. That measure paved the way to raise money for school construction across the city.

In April 2020, bonds were issued for $127 million for construction projects. The school system also received an infusion of $50 million in state grant money for renovations this spring, adding a boost to jumpstart other projects.

GW’s upgrades are coming in phases, with the first now ready to welcome returning students Monday.

In the classrooms, gone are the decades-old desks that once defined a generation of schooling and often left something to be desired in the comfort department.

“You know what’s interesting, before we had the one-unit desk from probably back in the 70s and 80s and it was just uncomfortable,” Hairston said when walking into a new classroom on the high school’s second floor Monday afternoon.

“These comfort chairs accommodate our children a lot better,” she explained.

Keith Silverman, a member of the Danville School Board, tries out a chair Monday in a renovated classroom for George Washington High School’s ninth grade academy.

After hearing the word “comfort,” board members instantly started pulling out the blue chairs — which, by the way, happen to match the school’s color — and tried them out.

“When children are seated and are comfortable and feel like they are in a good space, then … they really do perform better,” Hairston explained.

In this particular space, the desks — resembling mini tables — and chairs were arranged in small groups, a nod toward collaborative learning efforts and an extended theme of the renovations.

There are also spaces designed when counselors want to meet with small groups of students or when teachers want to break some students out of the classroom setting.

“We’ve got to start working with our children in collaboration and teamwork,” Hairston said of of the new concept that’ll be replicated to the rest of the building.

“We are excited,” she said of the student collaborative space before zipping to another stop on the tour.

Danville School Board member Philip Campbell tests out the soft seating available in a raised area of an English language arts classroom Monday while touring renovations for the ninth grade academy at George Washington High School.

When coming to the English language arts room, school board member Philip Campbell instantly darted to a raised area at the front of the room with soft seating and bookshelves.

Campbell tested out one of the chairs — blue, of course — stationed next to open shelves that soon will be home to books.

“It’s like a reading nook,” Takiwi Milton-Babalola, chief academic officer with Danville Public Schools, said.

Just as students have a collaborative space, teachers also have dedicated getaway areas for professional learning and planning, Babalola explained.

“This is a space where teachers can really think about lesson planning,” and work with other instructors, she said showcasing the workroom for teachers. “So, it’s comfortable and inviting for teachers.”

Teachers will have two planning periods in the new seven-period day. One is for personal planning and other is designed for these collaborations with other teachers in a content area.

When it comes to the administrative spaces, GW is taking a decentralized approach.

“What happens in a lot of large high schools — and GW is no different — you have students in certain sections in the building and your administration is located in one area way off,” Hairston explained when showing off another new space tucked away.

Now, there will be spaces throughout the building for behavior specialists, social workers, administrators and counselors, allowing for a quicker connection instead of a long trek navigating hallways and stairwells.

Danville Public Schools Superintendent Angela Hairston hosts a tour Monday of renovated space at George Washington High School to house a new ninth grade academy.

Next week, cameras will be installed in every classroom of the ninth grade academy, one of the few finishing touches needed to round out the upgrades.

“The teacher will have the ability to turn the camera on and off,” Hairston explained, also noting the instructor will ultimately decide how to use it.

The new security cameras in the ninth grade hallway will be standard across the school. The cameras are tied into a system that allows administrators instant access via a smartphone app, allowing a real-time view.

The locks on doors soon will be changed out with key fobs, another security issue. The fobs are small devices that when held to a sensor unlock a door.

“That issue is safety, we don’t have to worry about lost keys,” Hairston said.

“If there is an emergency, we can lock every door down immediately,” Ernie Lefebvre, the project manager overseeing the renovations, also pointed out on the tour.

Essentially, one button is pushed and all doors across the school will lock in the case of what is called al “lockdown” if a threat is detected. This eliminates the worry if a teacher forgets to turn the lock in what can sometimes be a fast-paced commotion.

“Again, it’s just safety,” the superintendent said.

Even though sprinkler systems would seem to be commonplace, George Washington High School didn’t have that part of the fire safety system. That’s all changing with the phased construction project and Hairston noted the new sprinklers when stepping out in the hallway.

Members of the Danville School Board walk down a hallway Monday for the newly renovated ninth grade academy at George Washington High School.

The ninth grade academy is a concept of a mini-school of sorts.

For the first four of seven periods — considered the core school subjects — the freshmen will stay in the one area of the school.

“It’s basically a chance to keep them all up here and assimilate them into the high school with dedicated staff,” Lanie Davis, a spokesperson with Danville Public Schools, explained while walking down the hall Monday.

However, the last three periods — elective classes, like physical education or band for example — will be spread all throughout the campus.

“It’s a model that other school divisions, I believe, across the nation have used for ninth graders,” she said.

Danville School Board member Keith Silverman takes a photo Monday of a renovated classroom in George Washington High School’s ninth grade academy.

After the tour, George Washington High School Principal Reyhan Deskins explained to the Register & Bee the reason for the academy’s launch.

It goes hand-in-hand with a switch from block scheduling — where students take only four classes a day for one semester — to the more traditional seven-period day spread across the entire school year.

“We were looking for ways to increase our graduation rates, for one,” he said, along with also wanting to up the attendance.

When looking at the data, ninth graders presented the highest level of problems for both areas.

“When they changed to a 4x4 block, it was really done for disciplinary reasons and not student reasons,” Deskins said in the hallway of the new academy Monday.

GW started block scheduling for the 2016 academic year.

Fatigue tends to set in when students — and teachers — stay in a class for a long period of time. It also creates a problem when it comes to attention spans for both.

The year-long move gives teachers more time to form a relationship with teenagers.

“We all know that’s really where it’s at,” he said. “The kids don’t care how much you know until they know that you care.”

The shorter classroom time is expected to fit with the attention span, according to research the school system performed.

“The academy just kind of grew out of that as well,” the principal explained. “It’s almost like a school within a school model.”

The idea is to drive more focus with the freshman year of high school.

“That ninth grade transition is probably the most important” in the K-12 span, he said.

Danville Public Schools Superintendent Angela Hairston explains renovations for George Washington High School’s ninth grade academy on a tour Monday.

Since taking over as principal of Danville’s largest high school, Deskins doesn’t call the teens who attend GW “students.”

He calls them scholars.

“I was like, you know what, we really have to change the mindset, because how kids think about themselves is how they are going to be,” he explained.

But he openly admitted that he stole the idea by giving a “shout-out” to Ryan Bell, leader of the Belle Academy in Roanoke.

“So I want our students to think of themselves as scholars,” Deskins said. “I want our teachers and the community to think of themselves as scholars.”

Even if a scholar gets in trouble, “You never know when they are going to turn it around,” he said.

Ultimately it’s a change in the way they view themselves and a mindset for everyone involved.

When asked what the most exciting thing is about the renovation, the color — bold GW blue — was the first tangible that Deskins pointed to.

“But really, it’s been the excitement of the staff,” he explained. “We’ve had staff that decided to stay on because of the academy.”

And they’ve even had other teachers coming to GW just because of it.

“I think it’s one of the biggest incoming ninth grade classes we’ve had in a long time,” he said earlier in the tour.

He credits the bump to the new ideas behind the ninth grade academy.

Charles Wilborn (434) 791-7976

[email protected]

@CWilbornGDR on Twitter

After publication, Lanie Davis, a spokesperson with Danville Public Schools, clarified information on the tour about the fire sprinkler systems. The original story reported GW was the only school system without a fire sprinkler system. "Sprinklers are a somewhat recent requirement for new and renovated schools," she said. "GW is the first, besides Galileo, to have sprinklers, but that is obviously a safety feature we will be focusing on as we continue with renovation projects. Of course, all of our schools have fire detection and alarm systems, but the sprinklers are new."

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George Washington High School to debut ninth grade academy next week.

Charles Wilborn