Enrollment in Albemarle County’s two charter schools is expected to increase next school year.
Chad Ratliff, principal of the schools, attributes the growth to the schools’ focus on student-centered and project-based learning.
“There’s an appetite for this,” said Ratliff, who took over as principal in June 2017.
As demand increases, acceptance to the schools will continue to be determined by a random lottery. The schools’ combined capacity is 160 students; however, Ratliff said capacity could increase to 210 after a reevaluation of the facility.
Ratliff discussed the charter schools at Thursday’s county School Board meeting as part of his annual report. The board authorizes the charter for Murray High School and the Community Public Charter School, a middle school.
The five-year charter was renewed in August 2018. The annual report is part of the charter agreement.
Ratliff said that as teachers work on new approaches to student learning, they are focused on replication more than ever and trying things that could work in a larger middle school.
“We don’t want to be the boutique school,” he said.
About 30 students each are expected to make up the incoming sixth-grade and freshman classes, more than previous years, according to his presentation.
Increasing the diversity of the schools’ enrollment remains a goal for Ratliff. This year, he said the schools saw a leap in candidates from various backgrounds.
“Certainly more than we have in the building right now,” he said.
Eighty percent of CPCS students were white, as of last fall, according to state data. At Murray, 82 percent of students were white. Division-wide, the student population is 65 percent white.
Ratliff said school staff held open houses and reached out to teachers and principals, especially in the urban ring schools. In the incoming classes, students from 13 of the county’s 15 elementary schools are represented, as well as five of the six middle schools.
“[We wanted] to really make sure that the knowledge and awareness of our school is as broad as it could be,” he said.
Board member Katrina Callsen asked Ratliff if he was happy with how the recent admissions cycle went.
“I’m not completely satisfied, but I’m definitely happy at the improvement that we have seen in the past,” he said. “The thing that we are thinking about now is growth, because the diverse applicant pool is still subject to a random lottery.”
Callsen pushed Ratliff to make sure all students are aware of the charter schools, so enrollment can be more reflective of the division’s overall student population.
Ratliff’s presentation updated board members on several initiatives. The CPCS experience went through a redesign and is in the middle of the first year of implementation. Planning is underway for similar changes at Murray.
At CPCS, middle school students learn the state standards through an integrated approach that crosses subject areas. At non-charter schools, standards are typically taught in isolation such as in an English or math class.
“It’s an arts-infused, project-based approach,” Ratliff said of the charter schools.
In Virginia state code and Albemarle policy, the charter schools are charged with innovating and serving as labs for the division. Ratliff said they’re working on initiatives that align with the division’s goals.
“We serve as a lab to research, design and implement and evaluate programs that could inform the other schools and work very closely with our colleagues in comprehensive secondary schools to do that,” he said.
In response to a question from board member Kate Acuff, Ratliff said the schools are hosting professional development workshops to share what they are learning.
“We’re documenting what we are doing and what we are learning,” he said. “That’s made available.”
At the middle school, teachers are working on grading based on the standards and use real-time feedback to show a student how well they know a standard.
“The attitude toward learning is skyrocketing,” Ratliff said of the middle school redesign.
Kaydin Edwards, a junior at Murray, said she enjoys the flexibility of the classes and curriculum.
“I can focus on the assignment,” she said. “I put in a lot more effort here than at base school.”
Edwards takes advantage of the arts opportunities at Murray, recording music in the audio room. She likes to sing soul, R&B and hip hop music.
Edwards said she was nervous when she started at Murray her sophomore year, but that the small class sizes and support of teachers helped her to become comfortable taking risks.
“I learned how to better myself,” she said.
Mia Scheiner, a sophomore, started playing the ukulele at Murray and is a member of the school’s squash team. She said she wasn’t sure about high school but picked Murray after shadowing a student for a day.
“It was a good fit,” she said. “There’s very good sense of community here.”
Scheiner said she’s found making friends to be easier at Murray and that she enjoys the support of teachers.
“They are very understanding and help you if you are having trouble,” she said.