Stepping into the job of principal at Western Albemarle High School this fall is Jason Lee, who has served as assistant principal for the past two years at Albemarle High School and at Fluvanna High School for six years prior to that. Lee replaces interim principal Pat McLaughlin, who has resumed his duties at the school division as chief of strategic planning. As with each of his past school posts, one of Lee’s most important priorities is to cultivate a “community feel.”
“Building relationships with parents and students at every level in every job is, to me, the best part of the job,” said Lee. “People see you in public and they smile and want to talk to you, and you get that sense of community.” At AHS Lee worked with principal Darah Bonham, who was WAHS’ principal before McLaughlin, and the pair had a “great relationship.” “I’m calling him with a lot of questions now,” said Lee, chuckling. “I took on more of an associate principal role [at AHS], and I think he knew that my next step was hopefully to go to a secondary school in the area.”
Lee wore many hats at AHS, managing its budget and its student transportation network and overseeing after-school activities, staff professional development, discipline, career and technical education, physical education, and fine arts instruction. He’s also been a strong advocate for the division’s expansion of culturally responsive teaching programs and training as well as for the ongoing redesign of school learning experiences.
“I think it’s really important to try to guide students in the direction they want to go,” said Lee. “So often they are told, ‘you should go to college after high school,’ but for some students that’s not their career path. There’s a strong focus on college readiness, but career readiness is a bigger piece and that means allowing kids to explore where they want to go in life and looking at options.” He pointed to the role of the high school academies, the new high school centers, and changing policies governing AP courses and weighted grades as ways for students to feel free to pursue their passions.
Reflecting on the similarities among his experiences in both teaching and school administration over his nearly 20-year career, Lee said that “kids are kids, the issues are the issues, and at the end of the day everybody wants to graduate and get the best educational opportunities they can.” Not a fan of sitting behind a desk, he says his main focus is being a problem-solver and servant to students for their needs. “I make it a point to get up every period and walk the halls—it’s important to me to be out there,” he said.
To prepare for the new school year in the midst of uncertainty about how school days might be structured for high-schoolers, Lee is scheduling listening tours with students, parents, and teachers—a task made harder by COVID-19 social distancing requirements. “I really wanted to hit the ground running,” he said, “so I started in late May meeting with my [WAHS] admin team every week, two to three times a week, just trying to plan.” He noted that of the three large county high schools, Western students had the least amount of incomplete classwork left over from the spring semester, with over 90% of the work completed.
One of Lee’s foremost goals for the coming year is to create a “culture of care” for everyone at WAHS, ensuring that students feel comfortable in their space. “Obviously the consistent rigor and high academic expectations are things we want to keep, but sometimes the pressure to succeed can take away from the total high school experience for students,” he said. “I want to talk about that pressure and how we can improve and make a healthier mental environment for our students.”
When asked about how his hiring might impact Western, which has the least diverse student population among county high schools, Lee has a broad perspective. “For some marginalized students, it would be a breath of fresh air to see someone who looked like them in a leadership position,” he said. “Regardless of color, I like to talk about character and character-building and how we treat each other. There may be people who are not comfortable, but the people making them feel that way are not purposely doing it. Sometimes you have to step back and say, hey, is this fair? Can we all be more caring here?”
Particularly under the pall of the pandemic, Lee wants to stress this sense of common purpose among the students, no matter how the coming school year ends up playing out. “Together we care” will be his mantra. “I want something for the student body and the school as whole to embrace, so ‘one family going in one direction towards one goal’ is what they’re going to hear constantly from me,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat and we have to work together to be safe, and that will be at the forefront.”
Lee’s wife is the supervisor of special education for Charlottesville city schools, and they have four children.
Welcome, Principal Lee!