PCPS teachers use flexible seating grants to update their classrooms

Ellen Valcourt arranges new flexible seating in her class the week before school starts.

POWHATAN – Students across the school district are getting the opportunity to wobble, perch, stand, lounge, and collaborate in their classrooms thanks to in-house flexible seating grants given to 36 teachers this year.

Leading up to the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Powhatan County Public Schools re-allocated $81,000 in funds already budgeted for furniture and equipment as grant funds, said Dr. Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction.

In all, 36 teachers working at the three elementary schools and Powhatan High School were awarded grants to purchase the nontraditional seating options for their classrooms, she said. This included new additions such as hokki stools, soft-seating ottomans, collaborative tables, sit-stand desks, and high-top tables.

“We saw more so at the elementary level to stick with the hokki stools or the furniture to help get the wiggles out,” Omohundro said. “At the high school, it was more about collaboration and being up and vertical.”

The decision to offer more flexible seating across the district was influenced by two main factors. First was how successfully it has been used at Powhatan Middle School. Then, as part of participation in the Virginia is for Learners Innovation Network, staff visited schools in other jurisdictions to witness how they are implementing flexible seating within their divisions, Omohundro said.

With the approval and support of Dr. Eric Jones, superintendent, applications were sent out to teachers across the division and then reviewed to determine how to meet as many needs as possible within the allocated funds, Omohundro said.

Teachers at all levels have long brought in items of their own that they picked up at flea markets or yard sales or wanted to purchase for their classrooms, said Dr. Jason Tibbs, director of facilities.

“They are excited about having these different types of setups in their classrooms. What it is going to do is bring more energy to the classroom environment, and kids are going to be more excited because they will have more selections in their seating options instead of a standard desk and chair,” Tibbs said.

Lauren Ayers and Ebony Fleming co-teach a collaborative third grade class at Flat Rock that is a mix of children with disabilities and ones on the general curriculum without disabilities. They have noticed that all of their students like to have different choices of seating and especially like ones that allow them to move, such as hokki stools or sit-stand desks.

The teachers requested rocking chairs that sit directly on the floor but have a desk attached so students can work. They also really wanted to add a collaborative table so they could both have groups working separately at the same time without one of them on the floor.

“They are very active. They have a lot of energy. I feel like in our class we do a lot of groups and we do a lot of independent work or group work where we let them sit anywhere in the room they want. With this seating, they are easy to move. The desks have wheels. The stools are light and easy to carry,” Ayers said.

Third grade also represents a huge jump in instruction and having to sit and listen to longer lessons at a time, Fleming added. The new flexible seating options allow the movement they need to make it through the instruction without being disruptive.

Flexible seating is all about giving students the opportunity to choose what works for them, said Ellen Valcourt, a kindergarten teacher at Flat Rock. At 4 and 5 years old, they may not realize it, but the students are choosing options that provide the ability to move, stimulate their senses or are just more comfortable.

She had been given hokki stools before and added “mushroom stools” and lean back chairs with lap trays through the grant.

“As an adult, I don’t like sitting in a chair all day long. So having these opportunities where the students can move, I think their attention is definitely something that I have seen improve. I have also seen just a more calming effect,” Valcourt said.

Nadia Hassan, a Spanish teacher at PHS, saw the flexible seating grant as a great opportunity to get rid of all of the desks in her classroom and have a place besides chairs to continue to work. She still kept a few regular desks and has traditional seats for lectures with clip boards so they could take notes. She also has a collaboration table for group work, two sit-stand desks, hokki stools and two sofas that went into a reading nook.

“I really wanted to make my classroom more welcoming and inclusive, and with foreign language, we are never really sitting down for a full class period. We are up and moving around, they are reading, they are speaking, they are writing. So this gives them spaces to comfortably do that,” she said.

Javier Cabezas, an Algebra 1 teacher at PHS, said he ordered three sit-stand desks, some special stools, and three collaboration tables because the desks he previously used weren’t conducive to group work. Getting rid of those desks also allowed him to free up space to have erasable white boards all along the walls so students could work together on problems.

“In math class, you need to share ideas, not be isolated, so that was my big motivator,” he said. “Mine is purely about understanding that outside of academia you almost never work alone, so I think we need to build up collaboration here.”

After PMS opened last year and all of the teachers there automatically received new furniture in their classrooms, Cabezas said he appreciated that the school district opened these grants up to the educators at the other four schools.

Having the grants had the benefit of replacing older furniture that was bought with the buildings when they were built or had been salvaged from Powhatan Junior High School before it was shut down and renovated, Tibbs said.

Prior to Powhatan Middle School being built, there had been no major furniture purchase for the schools since PHS and Flat Rock Elementary opened in the early 2000s, Omohundro added.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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