New Murray Elementary Principal Sees Beauty in Learning

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New Murray Elementary Principal Wendy Eckerle. Photo: ACPS.

New principal Wendy Eckerle joined the Murray Elementary community last fall, replacing C’ta DeLaurier who served as principal for the last two years and moved over to Woodbrook Elementary this year. Eckerle is originally from Wyoming, Michigan, and she taught kindergarten and 4th/5th grades in Fort Wayne and Terre Haute, Indiana and in Colorado Springs before heading east to Charlottesville. Here, she taught at Meriwether Lewis (now Ivy) and Brownsville Elementary, and served as assistant principal at Greer, Brownsville, and Baker-Butler.

“I’ve always said, no matter what job I’m doing in the field of education, I absolutely love it,” said Eckerle. “I just love the kids. I love what I do. The families have always been so supportive, and I just have a lot of fun with it. Being able to impact kids and be a part of their educational journey is so special—I used to say to them even when I taught kindergarten or first or second, ‘I hope you remember just one thing that I could give you, one gift.’”

Eckerle said that it was a tough time to get a teaching job when she arrived in Virginia in the early 1990s, with many applicants for any open position. “People I talked to who learned I was an educator said to me, ‘If you don’t know anybody [at the school division], you’ll never get a job,’ so I was very fortunate,” she said. “A first-grade teacher was leaving in January and she went through all the resumes at the county office, and she plucked me out of the pile there, so I was able to start within two weeks of applying.”

Not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Eckerle began working on a Master’s degree online through Walden University to become a literary specialist, and also embarked on a journey to earn a national board certification in teaching, a rare recognition. “I think right now there might be only 2% of us in all of Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS),” she said. “The process is pretty rigorous. You have to demonstrate that your skills are at a certain level, and there are assessors and your peers are also judging you. So, I had to document all the work I did throughout an entire school year, and that was an outstanding reflection—really made me examine my practice at that time.” 

She has since been re-certified and plans to re-up again soon. “I think it’s good that my staff knows I’m a lifelong learner, and that I’m going to continue to push my practice,” she said. “All of the new work around culturally responsive teaching and the science of reading is part of my reflective journey and will help me keep up to date and support my teachers the best way I know how.” Eckerle tries to keep a toe in the classroom whenever possible. “I’ve said to the teachers, if you need me for a special project, if you have a few sessions where you need an extra hand—if I can make it work in my schedule, I’ll do that.”

Eckerle described her style as proactive and she believes communication is key, no matter the time of day, for families and staff alike. “During pre-service week I’ve usually worked with a large staff, like at Greer, but here we had 28 or so teachers and it was so great to see everybody and connect with everybody,” she said. “[The school’s size is such that] I can do learning walks [short classroom visits] and I can attend every PLC [professional learning community] meeting unless I’m pulled for something.” 

Murray is perennially at or near the top of ACPS in terms of SOL (state standards of learning) scores as well as in maintaining very narrow achievement gaps between demographic groups, and Eckerle credits the school’s dedicated, supportive staff for the success. “This staff is exceptional,” she said. “It’s very low turnover—once teachers are here, they stay—and they are collaborative, goal-centered, and all working in the same direction. I could see all of that right away. When a new initiative from the division comes in, they embrace it, figure out how to tweak it for their classroom, and implement it. There’s so much support for each other, too—everybody willing to lift everybody up, and I think that makes a huge difference in outcomes for kids.”

Eckerle herself knows a thing or two about excellence in teaching. She was named the outstanding elementary teacher of the year in central Virginia by UVA’s Phi Delta Kappa chapter in 2006 while she taught second grade at Brownsville. “My gosh, what a great honor that was,” she said. Beyond her tremendous commitment to teaching and learning, the award recognized that she was an advocate of the movement to meet the needs of the whole child. 

“We talk a lot about social emotional learning now, but back then it wasn’t talked about in the same way,” she said. “I did a lot of training with restorative justice and meeting and talking with kids, keeping self-esteem and that whole child at the forefront to keep them moving forward and progressing. We spend a lot of time talking about ‘zones of regulation’ with kids. It’s a collaborative effort to get them to recognize that it’s okay to have these feelings, but we have tools to figure out what we need to do. Especially with the uptick in anxiety, we have to make sure kids feel safe and secure, and also give them the skills to cope.”

Eckerle is the school’s fourth principal in the last six years, and she has stressed her commitment to Murray to her staff. “I’ve spent almost 30 years in elementary schools, and it’s just where my heart is,” she said. “I love this early impact on kids. It’s so foundational, so key. I think the nine years I spent as an assistant principal really set me up for success in this role. There’s not really anything that I’m doing that surprises me, and that feels good.” Given Murray’s stellar track record, Eckerle is focused on issues like student agency going forward.

“We’re really going after that student voice,” she said, “and one of the things we created this year was a Student Council. Our second through fifth graders are part of the council, and we have new cohorts of members each semester to give kids more opportunities. We did peer nominations, which was really a neat way to do it, and one of the first big tasks was to write a school constitution to encompass the classroom and whole school visions.”

As a mom of three, all of whom went through western Albemarle schools, and now a grandmother to two, Eckerle said she’s gotten a fresh look at education. “Learning is beautiful, really,” she said. “I get so excited when I go into the kindergarten classrooms. That early childhood development is so critical and all that oral language is key.” She hopes to get a pre-K program back at Murray in the next few years. “I’d love to have it back, partly because they’re our kids and they’ll come into kindergarten here, and, also, it’s important to serve the needs of the community.”  

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