This piece has been edited for length and clarity
Chad Ratliff left education at one point, but he said he missed it.
He broke into the industry as a teaching assistant in an alternative education program in Martinsville City Schools, and then taught computer science and finance. He also worked as a coordinator of a grant program that supported at-risk youths, particularly during the summer, with job and social skills that help them toward college enrollment.
When he left the education field, he worked for a small insurance firm while pursuing an MBA at Virginia Tech. Also a University of Virginia graduate, Ratliff joined Albemarle County Public Schools in 2009 as an assistant director of innovation and instruction programs.
He returned to the education field, he said, because he missed the direct effect he could make on students. When the opportunity came to work as the principal for Murray High School and Community Middle, he immediately applied.
Ratliff added he has a passion for schools that have an innovative and student-centered learning model. Murray High School and Community Middle are housed at 1200 Forest St. They’re designed to serve students at risk of dropping out or failing to reach their full potential in traditional schools.
Q: Summer of 2018, you joined the Mastery Transcript Consortium. How’s that going on for the school?
A: What we’re trying to figure out: When thinking about report cards, how do we communicate student learning to students? How do we get feedback to them, but also to parents on a report card if we may not be doing the traditional letter grades? At Murray, we give three grades. You get an A, B or an NMY, which is a “not mastered yet.”
At the middle school, it’s mastered or not mastered yet and you haven’t tried yet. The consortium allows us to [grade this way] as we’re thinking how we grade; the transcripts are what colleges are looking at. We want to make sure that report cards that turn into a transcript that goes off to colleges [turn out] in a way that is most helpful to the students.
At the middle school, it's mastered or not mastered yet and you haven't tried yet. The consortium allows us to [grade this way] as we're thinking how we grade; the transcripts are what colleges are looking at. We want to make sure that report cards that turn into a transcript that goes off to colleges [turn out] in a way that is most helpful to the students
Q: Can you tell me more about it?
A: This consortium is a group of about 200 schools. We were the first public school in Virginia and one of the first few public schools in the country to be part of this consortium. What’s it’s doing is we’re re-creating a transcript model that’s not only about grades and test scores. But it’s about experiences that students have, the things they’re capable of doing and their creativity. And lobby for the acceptance of these transcripts at an equal level as traditional transcripts.
These are the most prestigious universities in the country. So, it’s working. Harvard has declared that they will give a mastery transcript the same way as they would for traditional grade-based transcript.
That’s just continuing work that we’re doing at that level. What it means for us is we will continue to develop and refine our grading model so we might not be doing the A, B and the Y anymore. Maybe we’ll have A and “we don’t know it yet,” but being able to transfer that to a transcript that can go off to the University of Virginia or elsewhere. And we’ll demonstrate what these students can do and be accepted by these institutions.
Q: You had a few upgrades. Talk about how redesigning and putting students in new spaces can benefit the learning process?
A: A couple of things: You have the spaces and then the tools and equipment within the spaces and the expertise within the spaces. About three years ago, when we were thinking about some of the redesign work and some of the grant and some funding that we receive to help with some resources our students had here, we really approach it with one perspective, with a single question in mind. We ask ourselves what do we need in order for a kid to actualize any idea that they have at least to a prototype level?
If you can think it, you can make it whether it’s a song….So, what are the spaces, tools and equipment of creative production and expertise that we will need in this building to give students that kind of access at the most minimal cost within our budget? That’s the approach that we took.
We want to develop children with an intellectual curiosity [and] creative and social confidence. All of our projects culminate with some sort of expo. Parents would come to see projects and tour the building. Guest speakers and residents come in to see the work; things like that can give them real people, outside of teachers and fellow students, to showcase their work and give them feedback on their work.
As such, we have students with music on iTunes and art in non-school sponsored exhibitions. They’re putting their work out to the world.
Q: You became principal in 2017. So far, what do you think your team is doing well?
A: The team here has focused on a couple of things — bringing more creative opportunities for students across both schools. That has been a good move by the faculty here. I think the schools are starting to work together. So, the building feels more like six-12 student-centered educational school versus two distinct schools with distinct missions doing distinct things. We have several staff members who teach in both schools.
That has really started to build a culture that when you come into the building, it does not matter which hallway you walk down, you’re walking into a culture that values creativity and that values intellectual curiosity. It’s just a culture of learning.
Chad Ratliff broke into the education field as a teaching assistant in an alternative education program in Martinsville City Schools.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Q: What do you think you still need to improve on?
A: One of the things that we believe is we hear a lot about buy-in when you talk about educational leadership. Get the teachers to buy into something. There’s value into that, but I think there’s greater value in a group of people, faculty and staff, who are working for the kids to go from the buy-in to this idea of co-construction. So, when the teachers, and all of us, are working together to design some of the things happening during the school day, I’m not trying to sell an idea to somebody. It’s coming back to me, and I’m the support person.
So, my role now, they tell me what we’re doing, and I figure out how to make it so they can accomplish their goals for students in classrooms. It’s very much kind of a reverse leadership model. And I think the more and more we can move into that direction, we’re empowering teachers to empower students is kind of the name of the game.
Q: How do you plan on diversifying your student population?
A: Our growth strategy is starting at what we call point-of-entry grade, so sixth grade and ninth grade. We fill up to 30, and then there’s a wait list. We’re lottery-based admission. This ninth-grade class in particular is our biggest at 30, and it’s also our most diverse that we’ve ever had. It’s showing some trending in a positive direction in regard to diversity, and in the middle school, it’s trending in that way too.
Our goal is, since we are a county school that’s open to all county residents, we want to mirror the demographics of Albemarle County Public Schools. Historically, there has been a lack of diversity, but we’re seeing the impact of some shifts in our admissions recruiting and outreach already.
Q: How do you do your outreach?
A: We do a number of things, including admissions information sessions here in the building, and we invite all parents. Our admission window is the same time as our academies, which is November to the end of January. In that time frame, we do three events here in the building, two at night and one during the day.
We email all fifth grade and all eighth grade families. We also do specific outreach to school and communities that may otherwise not historically have been able to come to our sessions or they’re underrepresented in our demographics. We also work very closely with counselors at all levels of schools and teachers and are open with ideas.
Q: What role do you play in recruiting minority teachers?
A: Nothing different than other principals. Since we are an Albemarle school, our [Human Resources] functions mirrors all the other schools. Applicants apply per school. They apply to Albemarle County Public Schools, and then they apply to whichever school of interest. We have been able to make a little progress in that area, too, in the faculty in the last year, which is something that we’re excited about.
Like students, the words have gotten out to some teachers too. I’m getting a of inquiries from minority teachers who want to teach here. Our approach to the curriculum is appealing because we do take a student approach, which is moving heavily in the directions of culturally responsive as the other schools.
Our goal is, since we are a county school that's open to all county residents, we want to mirror the demographics of Albemarle County Public Schools. Historically, there has been a lack of diversity, but we're seeing the impact of some shifts in our admissions recruiting and outreach already.
Q: What’s so special about your building?
A: This is a teacher-led organization. It’s a small school that they’re making key decisions they’re collaborating to come up with. If anything good is happening here, it’s a reflection on the teachers and full staff frankly.
The lab school effort has excited both our teachers, but also other teachers. I know teachers from other county schools are visiting us, as well as principals, requesting that some of our teachers that we attend some of their meetings.
Working with the University of Virginia and MIT on that work really put some research credibility on it, too. We’re able to say, ‘Hey, this is working, and this is a way, in some cases, [that] are more effective to educate students and design learning experience, and here’s the research to back it.’ Not only a body of research that’s been out there for years, but it’s happening with our own kids in our own backyard with our teachers.
Q: Your admission is lottery-based. Do you foresee it change?
A: It will always stay the same. We want to be as open door and accessible as we possibly can. It’s nothing that’ll ever change. If you want to come here, you have an equal chance no matter what your previous grades were, no matter what your previous behavior was. We believe this is the right way, and really a great way for all students to be educated. We don’t want to turn anybody away who wants to come here. With limited seating, that’s just as fair and flexible we can be is with a random lottery.
To be fair to the students here and the curriculum that we’re trying to implement, it will be chaos if we just open and bring several students in at one time without us being ready for that. So, we’re taking a very measured and deliberate approach.
Q: What are your big plans for Murray?
A: I would love to have more space. I’d love to be able to bring more students in to have more creative spaces. With our current growth trending, we’re going to hit a wall at some point, and then have to rethink space. We’re a school of choice. Our numbers depend on who wants to come here. As long as our faculty and staff are building such amazing learning experiences, we’re going to continue to see interest in demand and growth.
Q: What would you say are some misconceptions of charter schools?
A: Particularly, in this case, Murray is 30 years old — 31 this year — and the middle school is 11 years old. And they weren’t always in the same building. Anytime you have a school of choice that’s a non-traditional approach to learning, it could go in different ways.
When I took over as principal, I found that there might be different perceptions of what Murray High School really is, who it serves and who comes here.
The reality is it’s for all students. We don’t serve or try to serve any particular types of students. The other thing that’s so interesting is the credibility of a non-traditional approach to learning when most of our teachers, most of our parents, most of America went through a very traditional method of school.
Q: Can you elaborate on the misconceptions?
A: Traditional school is imbedded in what we believe about a real school to be. Anything that’s a departure from that is sometimes difficult for students, parents and teachers to comprehend. They might say, ‘Oh, that’s not real school. How can you learn that way?’
This is why, as a lab school, we really value that research and our relationship with the institutions with higher education to really put more research behind what we’re doing. It’s not just a feel-good approach to learning; it’s real. We’re actually seeing students are learning just like any other students. (Lab schools can design and pilot nontraditional approaches to learning that align to county schools mission, according to the division).
We know that retention is greater in this type of learning. Not only are they learning at the same pace and at the same level as any other schools, they actually remember it longer when learning is contextualized in this kind of way.
To be fair to the students here and the curriculum that we're trying to implement, it will be chaos if we just open and bring several students in at one time without us being ready for that. So, we're taking a very measured and deliberate approach.
Q: What’s the mission?
A: Our mission is to change the rules for everybody, but certainly who wants to come here. With that in mind, I think there’s that kind of credibility piece historically for non-traditional approaches. I think we’re doing a pretty decent job. Test scores are great.
Q: You measured SOL scores in comparison to other schools. How do you measure college admissions?
A: We track college admissions, but this cohort of ninth graders will be the ones in three or four years from now that we’re really going to be interested in in terms of what impact does this model have on college admissions. What we know, though, is the IB program. Students who took an IB class not only had a greater college admission rate, they also had greater college retention.
Q: You co-authored: “Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools.” How did you balance your workload as a principal?
A: I do what I love. I thought about education, learning and schooling forever. I just have a love for it. I often have to find ways to not talk about it. My wife jokes with me at social events that if I could not talk about school, it would be good sometime. I’m glad to have participated in that experience. But my focus has always been what’s happening in the day to day in these schools.
Q: Should we expect more side gigs like this?
A: Not until I’m retired. The priority has always been to work with students, and that was an attempt to try to capture that work, such as a broader audience could maybe impact schools. So, that was really my reasoning for trying to get that word out there.
Q: You were named one of the “20 to Watch” educational leaders in the country by the National School Boards Association two years ago. What do you owe your success to?
A: I wish I had a secret. I think it’s all about having the right team. Everything that’s happening here, and any work that I’ve ever done, has always been a direct reflection of the team that’s doing the work. We have stellar teachers in this building. All I did was supporting the teachers doing the work in the classroom. That’s really where the action is. I just tried finding resources. My staff absolutely deserved the credit.
The magic happens when teachers are creating an environment like this in which students want to come to and want to engage, and they create learning experiences that allow students to bring their own creativity into it, their own cultural experiences into it, and are able to able to tie up things that they need to learn by the state. That is really remarkable learning experience.
That’s why the schools here, Murray and Community Middle, are really gaining some momentum. Students and parents are very excited about what’s happening. That’s because of what teachers are doing, not anything that I’m doing that’s a secret or special.
Ratliff said he would like to have more space at Murray High School and Community Middle.
Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow
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