HCVA – Reflections

In the world of education, July is the page turning month; the month that starts with a deep exhale and some relaxation then ends with the opening of schools once again for teachers and students.  July is a time to look back on the successes of the previous school year, fine tune what worked well, and change what didn’t.  It’s a time for everyone in the district to catch their collective breath before the wave of teaching and learning begins to build anew.

Over the course of a week in June, each principal in Haywood County Schools (HCS) sat down and reflected on the 2021-2022 school year.  They discussed the challenges of the first year of full, in-person learning since 2018-2019.  They reflected on their school’s academic successes and looked honestly at areas of needed improvement.  Each principal, without exception, praised their faculty and staff and understood the challenges that come with being a classroom teacher.  They also discussed tangible ways to positively impact learning during the 2022-2023 school year.  

Every school leader and every school brings something unique to the district of HCS.  From Anderson Early Childhood Center all the way to Haywood High School, the buildings and staff that make each school what it is are shaped by the administrative teams on each campus and the invaluable work that each classroom teacher performs every single day.  

One of the many great things about Haywood County Schools is that the district strives to constantly be a school system rather than a system of schools.  Each campus is dedicated to a grade band, so each group of students moves from one grade to the next together.  Pre-K and Kindergarten students at Anderson.  First and second graders are at Haywood Elementary.  East Side is home for third and fourth grade students.  Fifth and sixth grade students attend Sunny Hill.  Seventh and eighth graders are housed at Haywood Middle School.  And, finally, HCS students finish their 9-12 grade years at Haywood High School.  The continuity is important for students and helps with consistency for their entire school career.

The challenging years of COVID-19 were difficult to manage for schools and students and families.  Out of those challenges, however, were positive aspects that were born out of the need to solve problems.  

What started as a necessary option in 2020, the Haywood County Virtual Academy (HCVA) finished its first full year as a school in HCS and was a wonderful addition for families who still wanted and needed virtual learning support.  

Brittany Pittman is the principal at HCVA and reflected on what the first full year was like for the teachers and students at her school.

“We had a great school year this year at the HCVA.  Last year (2020-21), we were more of a virtual option for the traditional schools if parents wanted their students to learn from home due to COVID.  This year, we really became our own school,” she said.

Part of the process of becoming their “own school” was shifting some of the expectations they had for students and families the previous year.

“We had to make some adjustments this past year, mainly as far as our expectations are concerned.  During COVID, we were learning on the fly.  This year, we wanted to make sure we had high expectations for our students.  We used the same high-quality instructional materials that are used on campus at the schools across the district,” Brittany explained.  “This year, we wanted to make sure we were aligned with other schools across the district as far as instruction is concerned.”

During the 2020-21 school year, HCVA used a full, online curriculum platform for their students.  This curriculum was self-paced and different from what was being used in the traditional schools.  This year, however, HCVA wanted to use the same, high-quality instructional material that was used across the district.  

“There were some early challenges in distributing the materials that students would use, but we ironed out those wrinkles and students were able to be at the same pace as other students in the district,” Brittany said.  “We also wanted to focus on students completing their work on time.  We had checkpoints throughout each unit – just like in the other schools – where students would turn in their work.”

Another difference this year at the HCVA was having the teachers consolidated on one campus.  During 2020, as the HCVA was being formed, teachers taught virtually from their respective campuses or from home.  This past school year, however, the HCVA was housed on the campus of Haywood Elementary School and the teachers were able to be on campus together and meet together and plan together in order to provide the most effective form of virtual teaching and learning.  

“Our teachers collaborated so well this year.  We had them all together in the building this year as opposed to teaching from their classrooms on their individual campuses.  This year, we operated out of the HCVA building.  We’ve seen a lot of growth in our teachers,” Brittany explained.  “They’re able to build relationships in person when they’re all in the same building.”

While teachers building relationships and collaborating with one another is important, the relationship building between students is also integral in the learning process.  As the HCVA continues to evolve, Brittany wants to continue to provide opportunities for students to interact both virtually and in person.

“Within the school, I want to see more of our students having their voices heard.  I want to have more student activities and more student involvement,” she said.  “Last year, we had quarterly gatherings for our students and families.  We had ‘Tech or Treat’ and the students went from class to class and saw their teachers in person and got candy.  Events like that really help build the culture and climate of a school.”

Along with building culture and climate at HCVA, Brittany also wants to continue to build upon the concepts in The Leader in Me program that has been so successful in schools across HCS.

“When we look at The Leader in Me model, we want to try and assimilate that to the virtual environment.  One thing we’re doing with our students is starting leadership notebooks.  They can track their data, share information about themselves, and have ownership of their learning,” she said.

Providing additional learning options for families is the main thrust of HCVA, but they also want to provide a challenging and worthwhile educational experience.  In order to do that, they have to constantly evaluate what’s working or not working from a teaching perspective.  The data from HCVA was very encouraging, but Brittany knows that there’s always room for improvement.

“We have room for improvement with our math scores and our foundational skills.  We want to focus on that this upcoming year,” she said.  

Along with continuing to improve teaching and learning skills at HCVA, Brittany is also reflecting on her own growth process as a principal.

“I’ve had to learn to become more flexible in this role.  The more I’ve grown and learned this year, I’ve realized that I can’t have rigid expectations.  Expectations are great, but they don’t need to be so rigid that they stifle growth.  I want to collaborate with my teachers so we can all grow together,” she said.  

The HCVA has been a wonderful addition to the school system in HCS and will continue to provide options and opportunities for students and families.