Henley Middle School welcomed a new principal, LaRuth Ensley, this year as former principal Beth Costa was appointed to the top job at Monticello High School. Ensley hails from the Richmond area, having most recently served as assistant principal at Falling Creek Middle School in Chesterfield, and prior to that as chair of the English department at Armstrong High School in the Richmond City Schools system.
“Falling Creek is definitely a special place for me, in the sense that it is a very diverse school that has a very strong ESL [English as a second language] learners population,” said Ensley. “So, I was able to gather my leadership sea legs, if you will, working there with diverse families. One of the things that really intrigued me about Albemarle County is the intentional pursuit towards making sure that school is inclusive for all. That was one of the reasons why I decided to apply.”
Ensley likes to “hang her hat” on her ability to navigate through different spaces. “Having diverse experiences enriches you as a leader and gives you a different perspective,” she said. “At Henley, of course there is already great work happening, so I’m just looking to improve culture and climate particularly coming out of the pandemic. Coming to Henley is a wonderful opportunity to kind of reset, restart, build new traditions and continue some existing traditions.”
Middle school students are “her jam,” and her mantra is that middle school should be fun. “The reason why I particularly love middle school students is that they’re moldable still—you can have such an influence,” said Ensley. “It’s a time of learning, and yes, academics are important, but also a time of really understanding the social landscape of things. How do you conduct yourself, in a way? It’s a period of exploration.”
As she took the helm at Henley, Ensley aimed to establish strong relationships. “At the core of all the work that we do, whether it’s teacher to teacher, teacher to student, custodial staff, cafeteria worker, it’s about really getting to know people,” she said. “I have spent the first couple of months listening, not with the intention to respond, but really listening to understand where people are coming from, and how I can best meet their needs, collectively.”
Ensley described her leadership style as transformational and said she is a “warm demander.” I want to see people grow,” she said. “I believe effective leaders help inspire others to see the inner leader within them, and you’ve got to draw that out of people by setting high expectations.” As she transitioned into the job, she met with teachers and staff and asked four questions.
“I asked how long have you worked here, what do you love about Henley, is there something you would love to change, and what is one thing that you believe that I as a new principal need to know in order to move forward?” she said. “People are very open and honest about what things they want to change. One thing about teachers is, if you ask, and you are vulnerable enough to be able to handle the truth, they will share.”
Veteran technology elective teacher Jon Barber was struck by Ensley’s focus from the get-go. “LaRuth reached out to make sure that she was addressing the biggest concerns she’d heard about coming in,” said Barber. “She made a point to have a personal face-to-face appointment with each and every teacher, to make sure we all had time to voice our feelings and concerns. She has laid down very obvious and clear expectations for all of us and asked for our input. She works harder than any principal I’ve ever worked for since 1996, and reads and responds to every email.”
Barber said that Ensley exudes a “positivity and professionalism” that sets the tone for the entire school community. “When I come to her with an observation or concern, she gives me her full attention and makes sure to follow up with me to make sure that it’s been handled to my satisfaction or is willing to explain why it might not be possible. She has a no-nonsense approach, and she expects us all to work hard, as well.”
Surveying the current academic state of affairs, Ensley said Henley is doing “relatively well.” “However, when you start to peel back the layers of the onion, you will notice that we have some work to do centered around supporting our students with disabilities,” she said. “We have some work to do around supporting our English as a second language group, and particularly looking at our underserved, our Black students, and making sure that we are intentional and providing safe spaces for children to learn and be their true selves.”
Ensley is not one to let the grass grow under her feet. After completing her undergraduate degree at Old Dominion University, she earned an educational specialist degree from The George Washington University and is currently working on a Ph.D. at Virginia Commonwealth University in educational leadership, policy, and justice. “I think seeing the intersection between the practical part of what I do, because I’ve spent over 20 years in education, and connecting that to the theoretical aspects of education and research, helps me see things play out in in real time,” she said.
Ensley’s day typically starts at 4 a.m., working on her doctoral program classes early before helping her two children, ages 11 and 13, off to school and making the drive from Short Pump to Henley. “I think that’s what allows me to really connect with parents because I am literally smack dab in the middle of the kinds of things—living with middle schoolers—that they are living through as well.” She consumes audio books on her commute and loves nonfiction about various educational settings around the country. “I just finished Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Eve Ewing about the Chicago Public Schools system, and now I’m listening to Progressive Dystopia by Savannah Shange.”
Looking ahead at Henley, Ensley said she’ll work to “identify issues and disparities, and then continue to drill down to look for ways to address those concerns.” “It’s not simple, because we’re complex, right?” she said. “But I do believe in the power of humanity, and in what we can do when we raise our collective voices. There’s power there, and children win as a result. Ultimately, what I always ask teachers is, is this in the best interest of children? And if that is the reason why we’re making the decisions that we’re making, then we’re where we need to be.”
Welcome, Principal Ensley!