For five years, Murray High School and the Community Public Charter School have shared a building, principal, culture and mascot.
On July 1, the two Albemarle County charter schools merged into one — a move officials expect will streamline operations and reflect a long-running effort to align the culture and instructional approach of both schools, said principal Chad Ratliff.
“Even though we really merged the student population community into one, it still felt like there was this arbitrary [divide] — I go to this school and you go to that school from the eighth and ninth, even though the kids are in the same classes,” Ratliff said.
The combined school, temporarily called Murray Community School, will have a new name pending a community review and School Board approval.
An advisory committee recently recommended Rose Hill Community School as the new name; however, community members immediately opposed that choice because it derives from the name of an area plantation.
The committee met Tuesday and decided to put its recommendation on hold in order to conduct further research, with a goal of wrapping up its work within the next months.
The merger opens more doors for more partnerships and allows for greater collaboration among the different grades, officials say. Over the years, Murray and CPCS have become defined by a project-based and student-centered approach.
“But as one school with the same transcript and the same school number in the accountability, we can really start to think about blending grade levels in more of a deliberate multi-age way like we were doing pretty heavily in the middle school,” Ratliff said.
In 2018, teachers at CPCS redesigned the school’s curriculum so students could learn state standards in a more integrated approach that crosses subject areas and grade levels. Teachers were able to match lessons and content in a sequence that didn’t necessarily reflect the order of concepts in the state standards.
But as two schools, teachers couldn’t blend coursework as easily between eighth and ninth grades.
“The difference between an eighth-grader and a ninth-grader might depend on the month of your birth, but not even that,” Ratliff said. “It’s just a grade level that somebody invented 120 years ago, so now we can start to think about credits in different ways and different ages.”
Other key advantages of the merger are “logistical and technical in nature,” Ratliff said. For example, when communicating with parents and students, Ratliff just has to send one message now.
Ratliff said he also thinks the change will ease the process to apply for grants because school staff will no longer have to explain the difference between Murray and CPCS.
“We all spent so much time explaining to families and students and interested folks,” he said. “There was just a lot of unnecessary explanation and technicalities that this merger is going to enable us just to move more swiftly with some of those types of endeavors.”
One outstanding question about the merger is the admission process for ninth grade. The school still will use a random system; however, officials still have to figure out what to do for eighth-graders who want to continue to ninth grade at the school. Historically, sixth grade and ninth grade have been key access points for students.
For the coming school year, Ratliff said about 90% of applicants were either rising sixth-graders or rising ninth-graders.
Murray High School opened in 1988, while the Community Public Charter School started in 2007. The Albemarle County School Board authorizes the charter for both schools and approved a joint charter in February.
The school serves as a lab to design and pilot nontraditional approaches that align to the division’s mission, vision and goals.
Ratliff said that during the division-wide closing of schools due to COVID-19 in the spring, both schools were able to continue with their project-orientated approach.
“We were very worried about it for the middle school level because the whole model is kids working together,” he said. “… Projects were less physical, obviously, and the collaboration was done differently. I think it’s going to be a little easier in the fall when we expect to have kids at least part-time.”
For the 2020-21 school year, he said teachers will have to rethink projects.
“It no longer might involve eight kids around the table, all making from the same pot of materials,” he said. “… But it is a challenge. One thing we’re not is a school that puts kids in single desks, and that’s going to be the simplest way to pull this off. And we’re not going to do that, so our teachers are already working really hard.”
Prior to the merger, there were eight charter schools in Virginia, according to the state department of education’s website.
CPCS moved to Murray’s location in the former Rose Hill Elementary School in Charlottesville in 2015. The school previously had been based out of Burley Middle School, another Albemarle school also located within city limits.
Ratliff said that when CPCS moved into the building, there was some competitiveness — “this hardline of, this is your school, this is our school, and I think that’s not healthy for occupying a tiny space,” he said.
In the years since, staff members at both schools have worked to build a 6-12 school community.
“I’ve had several people who are new families that didn’t know about either school say, ‘well, I thought you were one school all along,’” he said.