By Rebecca Schmitz
When she assumed her role as principal of Henley Middle School in July, Beth Costa brought with her not just a proven record of innovation and success but also a unique relationship with Western Albemarle High School’s new administration. Costa comes to Henley from Monticello High School, where she was assistant principal from 2012 to 2015. There, she worked closely with Monticello’s associate principal at the time, Darah Bonham, who became principal of Western this summer.
“Darah is very forward thinking. It’s a challenge to keep up with him,” she said. “With new leadership in both buildings, it’s a good opportunity for alignment. We have conversations once or twice a week. We try to figure out what we at the middle school level need to do to get our kids ready for high school.” They also discuss how the schools can make connections in units of study—students from Western’s Environmental Studies Academy, for example, can present material and share their knowledge with Henley’s future scientists to supplement the younger students’ learning.
Costa has also worked in tandem with Western’s new assistant principal, Jennifer Sublette, when both were lead instructional coaches for county schools from 2010 to 2012.
“I have never been on such a collaborative team,” Costa said. She hopes to replicate that collaborative working environment at Henley. “As a lead coach for a cluster of the 26 schools, it was important to present the same information and align goals,” she says. The experience left her with a strong foundation of knowledge to carry over to her role in administration: “It opens your eyes to the entire school system you work in, not just your school. It’s really nice preparation for the work I’m doing now.”
While at Monticello, Costa was instrumental in an initiative to create digital portfolios that capture student work. “We were one of the first schools in the county to use the digital portfolio,” Costa said, describing it as a “digital bin” that holds items such as scanned art projects, essays, and other performance-based work. “It is compelling because student work can get lost, and you tend not to have a record of it. It serves as a tool for teachers and students to see their work and track their progress. It’s a powerful reflective tool that allows students to say, ‘look how far I’ve come.’” The portfolio is particularly helpful, she says, when students apply for internships or to colleges. “It allows colleges to see not just grades and test scores, but experiences and skills. It paints a more comprehensive picture of the student.”
Costa will not only focus on harnessing technology, but also on building on the school’s strong track record of student achievement. “We have been purposeful in building Henley as a safe, student-centered learning environment. Our kids perform well. We want to continue to push them and create opportunities for them to push themselves,” she said. “The challenge for grades six through eight is: How do you encourage them? How do you instill a growth mindset, so that they see themselves as capable of learning anything?”
Costa views the middle school years as crucial to a learner’s development. “This is an important time of social, academic, and personal growth. As they develop as individuals, we can impact their path.” She believes in the power of student-centered learning: “Together we have to leverage their desires in the classroom so they stay engaged and want to learn.”
Because her students’ days tend to be filled with the demands of homework, sports, and a myriad of other activities, Costa is always looking for ways to encourage them to make time to pursue the things that most excite them. During Friday morning announcements, she often shares examples from her own life, such as how she took time to go hiking or play soccer over a recent weekend. “We want to encourage them to go do those things they don’t want to stop doing.”
Before the school year began, Costa met with Henley’s staff to come up with a set of schoolwide values. Dubbed “R2C2,”—for “Respect, Responsibility, Community, and Creativity”—the values reflect important principles that can’t necessarily be conveyed in a textbook. To ensure that students not just learn—but live—these values, teachers reinforce them throughout the day. During a recent “Henley Huddle,” which is similar to the daily “morning meeting” held in elementary school, students were given a graphic organizer and asked to brainstorm ways they could contribute to the various communities they inhabit, from the school as a whole to their individual classes.
The Henley community is one that Costa was thrilled to join. “I knew this was going to be a very open, friendly, welcoming place—but I had no idea how welcoming!” she marveled with a smile. Costa, who replaced Dr. Patrick McLaughlin when he left to become the school division’s Strategic Planning Officer, is a Henley parent herself, with one son in sixth grade and another in third grade at Brownsville. “I’ve known some parents through my kids, but I’ve had the opportunity to meet more and more. Everyone has been so welcoming. The kindness afforded to me has just been amazing!”
Costa, who graduated from Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and then received a master’s degree and a doctorate in educational leadership administration from Capella University, arrived in Albemarle County in 2008. She began her career in education working in Philadelphia and then Colorado in positions that included English teacher, language arts coordinator, and guidance counselor. She and her husband decided to relocate here when, during a trip to the area for a conference, they found themselves driving down Route 29 and marveling at the area’s natural beauty and family-friendly feel. One year later, they had settled in Crozet.
A former college soccer player, Costa plays in the Charlottesville Women’s Soccer League and with Henley’s students in the gym before school on Fridays. Her love of sports extends to baseball—she has traveled with her husband and sons to 18 of the country’s major league ballparks, and her family’s goal is to eventually visit all 30. “It’s an amazing way for us to be a family and have adventures all over the country,” she said.
As she settles into her new role at Henley, Costa is focused on getting to know her students and inspiring them to succeed. “We did a survey last year, and one thing we learned was that the kids really want us to know them,” she said. She spends time each day in the hallways greeting students and learning names, which she admits can be a challenge in a school of 850 students. But she’s committed to ensuring their experience at Henley is the best it can be: “I want to make sure all kids have that same feeling—we want Henley to be a place they can’t wait to get to.”