Jennifer Sublette will be taking the helm as principal at Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) this fall—the fourth person in the job in the last four years—and happily she’s planning to stay a while. “I’ve made promises to the faculty, the Superintendent, my mother [former WAHS teacher], my daughter [WAHS graduate],” said Sublette with a smile. “I’ll be here. When there are a lot of administrative changes, it leaves teachers with a feeling of uncertainty that makes their job more anxiety-ridden, and I need to be responsible for supporting them.”
She certainly won’t be bogged down by the usual “new job” learning curve. Sublette attended WAHS herself, taught there for eight years, and served as an assistant principal for a further three. After working as lead coach for social studies as well as director of professional learning at the school division, she’s ready to weave all of that experience together and to be back with students. “Last year [during the pandemic closures] was a really hard year not to be around kids,” she said. “Your heart broke for them and you just wanted to be as close as you could be.”
Sublette’s signature high heels clicking down the hallway as she’s transitioned back to school this summer have been a familiar sound to many of the WAHS staff. Though the setting is well known to her, she says she is “coming in curious.”
“I have a dedication to the building and a vision of where I think we could go together, but I also have a ton of questions,” she said.
“One thing that has been fun is to see the realization of ideas we were working on when I was last here,” she said. Pointing to projects like the school’s Learning Center and peer tutoring program that she developed several years ago with the testing coordinator and school-based intervention team leader, she stressed the value of those experiences. “To see a program we actually built and how it’s been sustained means we have the ability not to waste any time moving forward, and not losing momentum [in a transition] is really important.”
High school is an interesting time in students’ lives, said Sublette, and WAHS students are particularly special. “We have to give them enough freedom to be independent but with supervised limits so they respect each other’s property and space and social interactions,” she said. “Western has always had a school community that feels very joyful—kids like being here and there are traditions like the single lunch and socializing that they haven’t gotten for almost two years. The senior class has a real opportunity with the reopening to set the tone for what it means to be here.”
Teachers will have their hands full this fall measuring the academic progress each student made during the pandemic year, and Sublette thinks that “kid-watching” will be key. “We have to be confident in a teacher’s ability to use assessment in a really balanced way,” she said. “They have a diagnostic ability to work with students and see their skills, and developing the social nature of learning is really important as well. Teachers can take them where they are, set a learning goal, and fill in the holes as we need to, giving them the flexible tools they need to keep moving. We will make great strides quickly.”
Sublette headed the division’s anti-racism steering committee for educators and will bring that experience to WAHS. “The anti-racism policy is really comprehensive, and giving all the staff the professional development to be comfortable talking about race is really important right away,” she said. “The academic portion is where there are natural places within the curriculum where students need to be able to develop the skills to see things from different perspectives, see patterns of inequity and ask questions. It’s about how do we produce the most healthy school community where we really mean not just respecting each other but caring for each other.
“While we may look demographically rather homogenous, we know people who are incredibly diverse,” Sublette continued. “We have people moving in who bring new perspectives. Our culture here has a lot of different elements to it that we need to address, so when we talk about an inclusive school culture, I want it to be a big umbrella—I don’t want to polarize the community, but I don’t want to stagnate either.” She’d also like to broaden the definition of success. “In a school where we are very successful [academically and athletically], we have to remember that education is not a competition. How do we help kids explore, and ask themselves ‘what do I really want to do?’”
Sublette takes over at WAHS after a string of males in the position as only the fourth female principal in the history of Albemarle county schools. “My first mentor was Anne Coughlin [Western’s principal from 1998 to 2006],” she said. “She, for me, is a vision of what leadership looks like.” Sublette’s priority, as was Coughlin’s, will be with the teachers. “I want teachers to feel they’ve got someone here to run the building smoothly, so they can do their thing. Teachers work collaboratively if they have that healthy environment—sharing resources, talking about kids—and then the village really comes alive.”
Welcome, Principal Sublette!