Real-world learning at school board session  

Homemade cupcakes and brownies were passed around to set the tone of a pre-holiday Rappahannock County School Board meeting on Dec. 13. The treats helped fuel a two-hour meeting that focused on the school division’s real-world learning initiatives, among other topics, and concluded with a somewhat less giving vote on a repair bill.

Two RCHS students kicked off the monthly meeting with a presentation on strip-mining, leading off as an example of the school system’s broad curriculum shift, mandated by the state, to implement real-world learning and testing. Grant PerDieu and Amanda Puskar presented their “flex projects” on the effects of strip-mining on the environment and community, which also ended with two proposed solutions.

Then Cathy Jones, director of teaching and learning, RCHS Principal Mike Tupper and RCES Principal Karen Ellis gave a presentation about Performance Based Assessments and Project Based Learning — an initiative mandated by the VDOE to implement and promote “authentic” learning (writing, researching, debating and solving real-world problems) vs. “inauthentic” learning (filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil).

Jones said: “The wonderful thing about Project Based Assessment and Project Based Learning is that it ties in beautifully with our Comprehensive Plan. We want our students to not only be learning content, but developing life-ready skills that they can use far beyond the walls of our schools.”

Next up to present was Shannon Grimsley, academic services director, who updated the board on the successful Worlds of Work (WOW) Career Expo in October, a collaborative effort between RCPS and six other school districts enhancing career exploration for 3,000 7th-grade students across the region which also involved 80 businesses and over 40 volunteers.

“And for our second year in a row, almost a 100 percent ‘good’ to ‘great’ rating on the event,” Grimsley said. “Especially with ‘Did it give you ideas for what you want to do later?’ This was totally out of the ballpark compared to what we were experiencing before with some of our other events.”

Agenda items and discussions moved along with ease. The board unanimously passed the school division’s Comprehensive Plan and approved an updated sick leave policy. But the mood waned a bit when responding to a bill payment request for $622.72 covering a sheriff’s office vehicle repair from a Culpeper Chrysler dealership — $126.72 for spark plugs, $21 for oil and $475 for labor.

There is an informal agreement between the sheriff’s office and the school board to save costs and utilize the school’s garage facility for routine maintenance of the vehicles, with the sheriff’s office providing the parts and the schools the labor.

Last month, an incident occurred that blurred these lines. Superintendent Donna Matthews said: “This [sheriff’s] vehicle, on Nov. 10, completely stopped on the road when answering a call, and they towed it back into the [school’s] shop and we had just changed the oil in it … At the time, the thought was there was no oil in it, it was actually a fuel pump that had gone bad … The thought was that from the person who brought the vehicle in was that we had overfilled it, again… We did check and we hand not overfilled it, we did have the seven quarts of oil, which is what’s required.”

In 2013 the same vehicle was overfilled by one quart and had to taken to the same Chrysler dealership for repairs.

Matthews went into further detail: “We could certainly have done another oil change if that had been what’s wanted at no cost to the county except for the cost of spark plugs and oil … The [dealership’s] bill totals $1,200, but the rest of it was for the fuel pump. If you look at the notes on the bottom, is says ‘The fuel pump failed, 0 psi from the pump.’ They removed the safety glass from the rear seat to access the fuel pump, ‘excessive fuel from the tank, had to drain some out the tank.’ ”

Matthews seemed relieved by the dealership’s billing disclosure policy: “We’ve tried to communicate with this business, but they will not communicate with us, [because] they say it’s not our vehicle, which is a problem I never dreamed we would have.”

This seemed to ease the board as well, who followed up decisively, after renouncing negligence, by rejecting the bill payment request. Board chair Wesley Mills’ of Jackson district set the tone in responding to a question posed by Piedmont board member Larry Grove: “So what do we have to do?” Mills declared: “We don’t have to anything … It’s not a school budget problem from what I can tell. Labor is something we do in-house and parts is not something we do. This is a bill for labor and parts and that’s not our domain.”

An exchange by the board followed but they unanimously (with Wakefield district’s Chris Ubben, a sheriff’s deputy, abstaining) voted “yea not to pay.”

To see the whole exchange and other topics covered such as school attendance and a Family Life review, visit the Rappahannock Record’s YouTube channel at

Documents from the meetings are available at

Luke Christopher
About Luke Christopher 103 Articles
Luke is a "Best of D.C." photographer who has been published, in print, in The Washington Post, The Washington Times and Miami New Times. He started his photography career as a reporter for the University of Maryland's daily newspaper and served as the entertainment editor for "City Living " magazine. Website: