Western Albemarle High School’s principal for the last four years, Darah Bonham, will take a new position this fall as Albemarle High School’s principal, and Dr. Patrick McLaughlin has been tapped as interim principal for a one-year term at WAHS. McLaughlin will be a familiar face to students and parents in the western district, having served as Henley Middle School’s principal for seven years ending in 2015.
“This year’s rising juniors and seniors at Western were with me at Henley during my last year there,” said McLaughlin, “and I know a lot of kids from Brownsville as well because my daughter went there. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with all of those students and meeting new ones.”
In an unusual move, McLaughlin comes to WAHS not from the ranks of current principals or assistant principals in the county, but from the division’s administrative team where he was chief of strategic planning. When AHS’s current principal, Dr. Jesse Turner, announced he was moving to Buford Middle School in the city, the cascade of open positions led to a quandary for the county.
“When it became clear that Darah would be the top candidate for the AHS position, it was getting pretty late in the game and there was not enough time to really explore the candidate pool for WAHS,” said McLaughlin. “Principal positions are incredibly important and we didn’t want to give short shrift to the process.”
Enthusiastic and energetic, McLaughlin thrives in the county school’s ecosystem and values the unique contributions of every segment of the operation. “Moving from a school to the division gave me the ability to get out and work with an incredible group of principals at our 25 schools, and really helped me learn from the best,” he said. “It helped me see the large picture of the division, and embedded in me our values and core priorities and mission.”
Still, McLaughlin was surprised when Superintendent Matt Haas asked if he would be interested in serving as interim principal. “It was kind of a shock to me,” he said. “Truly I thought my days as a principal were in the past, but the idea really got me excited. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to come back and do this job with kids that I know for the most part.”
Having experienced both sides of the school/administration divide gives McLaughlin a unique perspective, as he’ll now be responsible for implementing the strategic priorities that he himself established as planning chief. “I’ve always encouraged principals to think about how our priorities—creating a culture of high expectations for all kids, reducing the achievement gap, and ensuring students develop personal interests—are being incorporated into their schools, and now I’ll have boots on the ground to be able to develop these with the staff at Western.”
Day to day, however, McLaughlin vows not to be stuck behind his desk. “I hope to spend most of my time outside the office getting to know the kids and teachers,” he said. “There’s a huge amount to learn in terms of what’s working well and what the community and staff value most.” He is already working with Assistant Principal Tim Driver to set up meetings with students, parents, and staff members during the first few weeks of school to listen and find key threads in what he hears from each group.
In his position at the school division, McLaughlin’s responsibilities ranged from creating overall strategic plans and policy updates to supervising the departments of communications and accountability and testing, and many of his ongoing projects will be shifted to other division staff in his absence. Strategic planning for the long-term Horizon 2020 update may be delayed for a year so that McLaughlin, who had led that effort until now, can continue when he returns.
The school division will conduct a nationwide search for a new WAHS principal to begin in the 2020-21 school year, and McLaughlin will be ready to help with that transition. In the meantime, he’ll have to decide how much of the division’s formality to bring to his new job. Will he switch to golf shirts and sneakers? “I don’t know,” he said with a laugh. “I like wearing ties.”