In the Principal's Office
This is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.
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While participating in the study abroad program Semester at Sea during his junior year at the University of Pittsburgh, Patrick McLaughlin changed his course.

Part of the trip involved visiting Brazil, where McLaughlin saw elementary-age children living and surviving on the streets with nothing to support them. He said that made him ponder over what his career choice would be.

“In our country, there are [many] opportunities that anyone who wants to work hard and take advantage of that can make something of themselves to a degree that these kids couldn’t in these places,” he said. “And I said, ‘That’s where I can make my impact is going and working in schools and encouraging kids to pursue that dream.'”

Prior to taking the reigns as interim principal at Western Albemarle High School, McLaughlin has held several positions, including assistant principal, principal and strategic planning officer.

Q: Are you involved in the hiring process [for principal]?

A: Our human services run that search. I don’t think I will be involved in the search until the new principal is named. And when that new principal is named, I think I’ll have a role in helping that person with the transition. I’ll get them setting up for success, so that he or she can start on July 1.

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McLaughlin once served as principal of Henley Middle School.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Q: Are you going to miss this position?

A: Oh, yeah! There’s no position in the school division that’s quite like being a principal. And, really, none like being a high school principal. You’re just constantly on the move. And you’re constantly working with kids, working with teachers, trying to do things and make the school a better place. And it’s energizing, while exhausting.

Q: Would you work as a principal again?

A: It’s been very valuable to me to be back as a principal, particularly I’m getting ready to start leading the division’s new strategic plan over the course of next year. I would welcome another opportunity down the road to come back for an interim position somewhere.

Q: It’s must have been an interesting position? 

A: It’s been really interesting to me to see that I’ve been working with a lot of our division’s priorities and moving those priorities forward. Those have an impact on the work that we do in school. And actually being in the school and seeing what that looks like and seeing some of the successes and challenges that we’ve had putting that work in place has really been eye-opening.

The timing of this worked really well that I’m going into this strategic plan really with the eyes of a school-based practitioner as well as a division leader. It’s good to stay fresh.

Q: It gives you a broader perspective, right? 

A: It gives you a broader perspective. It’s easy for someone to say, “Do this.” It’s the implementation of these things that we tell people to do where it gets difficult.

And sometimes, there are unforeseen challenges that are out there that we need to be aware of. I’d certainly be open a few years down the road to come back and work as a school administrator again. I think it’s, in fact, important to keep that connection.

Q: At one point, you served as principal of Henley Middle School. What is it like being principal of Western Albemarle?

A: One of the things that really brought me back here was that most of the kids who are seniors or juniors this year were kids that I had at Henley. Getting an opportunity to see these kids and work with them again has been great.

What have I learned? A lot of things that have been reinforced for me, probably is the power of relationships — how important relationships are across the board, relationships with our kids, with our staff and relationships with our community. You cannot be effective and impactful without taking the time to build all these relationships.

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Prior to taking the reigns as interim principal at Western Albemarle High School, McLaughlin has held several positions, including assistant principal, principal and strategic planning officer.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Q: So, you came onboard knowing it would a one-year term?

A: When my predecessor left and transferred to Albemarle High School, it was relatively late in the typical principal hiring process. Superintendent Dr. Matt Haas asked me if I would be interested in coming onboard for one year and made it clear that it would be a one-year position.

I went into it knowing that. One of my children is an eighth-grader right now who’s going to be a freshman at Western Albemarle next year. I don’t know how well that relationship would work. I want my children to come to school and have an experience without having their dad looking over their shoulder every five seconds.

Had one of my kids been here, I’m not sure it would have been this easy to say yes to Doctor Haas as it was at that time. The timing of it was really perfect.

Q: What was your favorite part in college?

A: Semester at Sea was one of them. Also, I went to the University of Pittsburgh after growing up in Charlottesville. I went there by myself. I didn’t know a single person. Most of my friends when they were going to school had at least one or two many more that were a little bit closer to home.

Just jumping and taking that jump was something I thought was new to me — that was scary to me, but I thought ultimately was rewarding.

Q: Why didn’t you stay here?

A: I wasn’t always a good student. My options were limited. I wasn’t a kid who really liked school a whole lot. In fact, I had some struggles in middle school. I ended up finishing my eighth-grade year in an alternative school because of some behavioral issues and academic issues and really wasn’t doing much better in high school when I first started.

When my predecessor left and transferred to Albemarle High School, it was relatively late in the typical principal hiring process. Superintendent Dr. Matt Haas asked me if I would be interested in coming onboard for one year and made it clear that it would be a one-year position.

Patrick McLaughlin Principal of Western Albemarle High School

Q: There have been many media reports about standardized testing. Children success are being measured based on their testing scores, but here you are: a principal. What are your thoughts?

A: I had the ability to do OK on standardized tests. I just didn’t like my experience in school. I did not like the work that the folks assigned me to do. I didn’t see the relevance of that work to me, and I just rather go out and have a good time with my friends. And I got in a lot of trouble.

And I think that experience gives me a great edge as a principal, particularly when I work with students who struggle because I’ve been in their shoes before. That gives me a way to empathize with those kids. All these kids are special to me, but those when I look at who I might come and see that I remember from Henley, it was the kids who needed us the most who got me to say, “Yes I’m going to Western Albemarle.”

Q: How were you able to adjust to the role?

A:  It definitely has been an adjustment. It’s probably been the biggest adjustment with my family, and how much time I get to spend with them, or how much time I get to not spend with them. I tried to make my family a priority. That’s really important that I’m not missing out on events that they have because of the job.

I try to get my kids involved with work up here. Most high school principals who I’ve seen who are successful and have young kids, make their kids a part of the school. I’ve seen that from some of our assistant principals. I’ve seen that from high school principals from other divisions, too.

Q: Do you think that public education has changed?

A: Yes. Not only has education changed, but the way I view education has changed. When I started teaching, a lot of people fall into this, you want to teach the way that you were taught, right, because that’s what you’re used to seeing. And the way I was taught for the most part was very traditional.

And even though I knew I didn’t like that when I was coming to school, that’s how I started out because I thought that’s how we were learning things at that time, too. But pretty quickly, I’ve seen there’s a lot of more value to interdisciplinary instruction.

Transportation shouldn't be a barrier. And I'm not on the [transportation team]. I don't know what the final solution to that is going to be, but I know we got the right people working on it.

Patrick McLaughlin Principal of Western Albemarle High School

Q: Can you elaborate?

A: Standards are important. We’re always going to have some measure of standards through SOL testing, and things like that. But when you think about what kids need when they leave us, that’s much more than what we used to call the soft skills: communication, critical thinking and collaboration.

We really need to strive as not only a school division, but as an educational system in the nation to allow more opportunities for students to do that and to value that as much as we value the history standards or the English standards that we have throughout the state.

Q: Speaking of changes in education, have you gotten feedback from students about Center I?

A: The feedback I’ve gotten from the kids have been positive. We recently did an orientation meeting for our rising ninth-grade students, and one of the things that we focused on was the different choices that are coming from down the road for kids, including new programs added at Center I.

Q: The reason the division created Center I was to elevate the capacity issues. What are your thoughts on how your building has handled capacity issues?

A: We’re doing OK. We got a lot of kids here, but we’ve been able to manage it. We still have enough space that teachers, for the most part, have their own classrooms. There are not a lot of teachers who have to move from room to room. There are a couple, but not a ton. But we’re projected to continue to grow.

The expansion that we just put on this year has helped with that. That added four classrooms for us. The school was built around 1973. Our classrooms are small and they were dark, for the most part. The county has done a nice job of doing things, adding natural light to these classrooms to make them feel a little bit more welcoming.

We’re big, and we’re seeing the writing on the wall that we’re getting bigger.  Some reliefs need to come, but I don’t think we’re at a crisis mode by any means.

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McLaughlin grew up in Charlottesville.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Q: Do you think Center I, because it was designed to elevate the capacity issues, is the answer?

A: It will be part of the answer. Center I will. Center II, when that opens up, will also be part of the answer. And I think having kids who are moving to different academies when the models come up running will be helpful as well. But depending on what ends up at those centers, I think will have a big impact on how many students are here each day.

Q: Transportation can be a concern, the community said. Do you think the children are spending too much time on the bus to get to Center I? 

A: Transportation shouldn’t be a barrier. And I’m not on the [transportation team]. I don’t know what the final solution to that is going to be, but I know we got the right people working on it.

I know that’s one of the charges that Doctor Haas has given is how do we make sure that kids don’t use transportation as a barrier to these programs? What structures do we have to have in place to be able to provide that to kids?