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Connie Ratcliffe has been with Roanoke City Public Schools for 28 years, the last 13 as head honcho.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Patrick Henry High School Principal Connie Ratcliffe is approaching the end of her tenure after six years on the job. “It’s been a lot of work,” she said, “but a lot of fun.”
Thursday, May 30, 2013
She seems to be everywhere.
After school at a lacrosse, baseball or soccer game; in the halls greeting students; and at plays and concerts. In recent weeks, she even managed it all with a broken leg.
Retiring Patrick Henry High School Principal Connie Ratcliffe, who has led the school for six years, said she tries to get to as much as possible.
“It’s hard to make 2,000 kids feel at home,” she said. “That’s a way of doing it.”
As she prepares to retire this summer, those who know her can cite countless things she has done for the school and its students.
But her greatest contribution might be her time.
Not only does she log long hours each day, but she also has had a long tenure at the school where others have not.
Ratcliffe restored longevity to the role of Patrick Henry principal, something that had been lacking. In the years leading up to her time at the school, there was a revolving door of leaders.
Not since Principal Elizabeth Lee, who retired in 1998, had there been a principal who stayed for more than two or three years. The constant turnover frustrated parents and created issues.
Ratcliffe said that because of the turnover there were lapses in getting students the programs they needed and some slipped through the cracks because there was no consistency.
“When you have a lot of turnover, there’s not a lot of follow-through,” she said in a recent interview from her office, where she sat in a wheelchair with her left leg splinted after an accident at the veterinarian with her dogs left her with a fracture.
Patrick Henry’s past with principals coming in and out is a common one at urban schools across the country. According to a study from the Rand Corp. on first-year principals in urban districts, more than a fifth of new principals leave within two years.
Ratcliffe said that when she came to Patrick Henry there were good educators, a dedicated team of parents and a leadership team in place, but there was no direction or vision for the school.
“It was kind of like every man for himself,” she said.
Her task was to change the school’s culture and get it headed in the right direction.
“Changing the culture is hard and very challenging,” she said. “No one knew what to expect because there had been so much change.”
But she said the staff went with her in the new direction. She said they never needed to be “pulled.” She said the task for the next leader will be to keep the culture going in the right direction.
The search for the school’s next principal is underway. Superintendent Rita Bishop said the first round of interviews, which included six or seven people, has been completed. A second round of interviews was scheduled for this week.
Bishop said she hopes to bring forward potential candidates to staff and the community in early June. She said she aims to have the school board vote on a new principal June 11.
For Bishop, hiring someone to lead Patrick Henry six years ago was one of her first orders of business when she came back to Roanoke in 2007 to lead the system. She said hiring high school principals is difficult.
But Bishop said she knew Ratcliffe was the right fit, just as she was for Woodrow Wilson Middle School, where she was principal before moving to Patrick Henry.
When Bishop was an assistant superintendent in Roanoke, she said she remembered seeing Ratcliffe at Ruffner Middle School and knew she was the one to lead Wilson.
Ratcliffe has been with Roanoke City Public Schools for 28 years. She started her career in Pulaski County, where for a year after college she was a school bus driver. She was also a physical education teacher and coach before later coming to Roanoke to teach elementary and middle school before moving into administration.
She was an assistant principal at Ruffner for three years and principal at Wilson for seven years before taking over at Patrick Henry.
When Ratcliffe came to Patrick Henry, she was tasked with opening the new building. Bishop said Ratcliffe immediately took charge and in the time that followed she increased Advanced Placement offerings and the school’s graduation rate. She said the school also now has “a sense of order.”
“There was some chaos here,” she said.
Parent Amy Lowman, who has worked with Ratcliffe through the PTA for years, said the school’s atmosphere starts with Ratcliffe. She described her as someone who has been open to ideas and easy to work with. She said Ratcliffe also holds students accountable and to high standards.
“She has guidelines she goes by. She’s going to stick to it,” Lowman said. “I think the kids respect her for that.”
Like others, Lowman also recalled seeing Ratcliffe everywhere, including at her son’s baseball game last Friday where Ratcliffe showed up in a wheelchair.
“Whatever the students are involved in, she wants to see them succeed,” Lowman said. “She’s going there to support them.”
Even if that means showing up at the ballfield with a broken leg.
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