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At Murray High graduation, students’ resilience takes center stage
Emily ThomasClarke Murray HS, June 1 2017
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Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow
Murray High School graduate Emily ThomasClarke was introduced by her mother, Ellen, and received her diploma from her father, Mike.
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Josh Mandell | Thursday, June 01, 2017 at 8:57 p.m.

Albemarle County Public Schools superintendent Pam Moran has attended many high school graduation ceremonies in her 11 years on the job. She said that Murray High School’s never fails to inspire.

“Murray is unique,” Moran said at the school's graduation on Thursday. “There is nothing that captures my attention more than the passion that young people at Murray High School bring to life.”

Murray is an Albemarle County public charter school designed for students who are at risk of dropping out or graduating below their potential. It enrolls 110 students, and reserves three places for students from the City of Charlottesville.

Principal Ashby Kindler said that this year’s class of 20 graduates had overcome a variety of obstacles, including health issues, struggles with gender identity and post-traumatic stress.

“I don’t think resilience is something students are born with,” Kindler said. “It comes from the right person being there for them.”

Each of this year’s graduates could choose one adult to speak on their behalf at graduation, and a second to hand them their diploma.

Murray special education teacher Mary Kelly spoke for Charles Cox, who will attend George Mason University next year.

Kelly described Cox as a brilliant “non-traditional learner” who needed to understand the purpose of each assignment before applying himself.

“Thank you for constantly challenging me to stretch and think outside the box to present you with the learning opportunities that you needed,” Kelly said.

Murray senior Tristan Johnson chose Murray teacher Dustin West to speak for him. “[West] inspired me to be a better musician and a better person,” Johnson said.

“Instead of seeing Tristan’s tremendous, Renaissance-man qualities as positives, other schools tended to see them as a disruption,” West said. “When you see a firework and you can aim it at the sky...  it’s amazing to watch it blossom.”

Johnson said he wasn’t excited to attend Murray when he entered the school in ninth grade. “I thought it was too small and weird,” he said.

However, Johnson said that friendships and encouragement from teachers at Murray gave him more hope for the future.

Murray’s educational philosophy is based on William Glasser’s “Choice Theory,” which emphasizes the ability of individuals to control their thoughts and actions.

Students must achieve a grade of “B” or higher on every assignment. “If I don’t understand an assignment, I can wait to take the test,” said Murray graduate Makayla Criser.

Criser transferred to Murray from Albemarle High School during her sophomore year. She said that forming close relationships with her teachers helped her to cope with the death of her mother.

“My teachers would sit down with me one-on one,” Criser said. “They believed in me. In times when we’ve wanted to give up, our teachers have really pushed us to be better— for ourselves, and for our community.”

Criser also graduated with honors from the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center’s dental careers program. She is applying for jobs in oral surgery and orthodontics offices.

Emily ThomasClarke said that she struggled with mental health issues while enrolled at two of Albemarle’s traditional high schools.

“I couldn’t keep up with my coursework and my health,” ThomasClarke said. “At Murray, I could take on my coursework and not suffer.”

“I know it wasn’t easy to power through your worries and your fears,” said ThomasClarke’s mother, Ellen. “But these last six weeks, you have been a woman on a mission. ... You set a goal to graduate. And here you are.”

ThomasClarke said she enjoyed taking leadership roles in community-based projects during her time at Murray. This spring, she met with local business owners to attract sponsors for the high school’s prom.  

“I learned skills that can’t be learned through writing papers,” ThomasClarke said. “At Murray, I was able to shine and be true to myself.”

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