CENTREVILLE — Chrissy Aull, founding Head of School at Wye River Upper School never envisioned capping off her 25 years as an educator and leader during a global pandemic.
In 2002, Aull was a special educator and parent of an eighth-grade son with learning differences at the Radcliffe Creek School, and she found herself scrambling to find a high school that could also serve his needs. With nowhere to turn, she sought the partnership of Patricia McGlannan to create a school of their own. Together, with tremendous initiative, innovation, and a deep devotion to serving a vital need, they co-founded Wye River Upper School.
Wye River modestly began with nine students in classrooms leased from Chesapeake College. As more and more families heard about an extraordinary high school where the students would be understood, respected and supported, Aull and the WRUS Board saw the need to secure a more permanent home. A multi-county search for a location began in 2008 and ended in 2010 with the purchase of the historic Maryland National Guard Armory in Centreville. Just as Aull had envisioned, the structure offered an urban location, within walking distance to a public library, town square, and easy access to public sports fields all of which were incorporated into the school’s model of instructional delivery and facilities use. Purchased and renovated by the school through capital campaign fundraising, the Armory, which had first trained young men to prepare for service in the military and war, hosted a new purpose and was transformed into an idyllic, spacious private school where great minds who don’t always think alike could learn in a safe environment, celebrate their strengths, and find that their lives are forever changed.
During her 18 years guiding Wye River, Aull has drawn upon her knowledge as a special educator and parent to shape a school that can build student strengths and respond to learning needs in groundbreaking ways. From the start, Aull ensured opportunities for students to dive into experiential learning through outdoor camping, Broadway shows, and trips to the State House where students learned to be their own advocates and engage in the government process. She encouraged and co-chaperoned memorable trips to Alabama, where students studied the Civil Rights movement in an immersive way. Always valuing sound teacher professional development, she made sure that staff were trained in Orton Gillingham, a multisensory approach to reading, teaching classes herself to bolster students’ reading capabilities and success.
Knowing that students with learning differences often have extraordinary talents, Aull founded Wye River with the central belief that student strengths should be discovered and celebrated. To that end, she has always fostered the study of art, music and theater to help students develop executive functioning skills, manage ADHD, decompress when challenged with anxiety, and build confidence. The arts program has sparked passion for many, and for some, even guided their career paths. Aull has held firm to the belief that every Wye River student should begin their day with physical activity to help them better focus during academic classes and boost their mood and energy. From the start, she implemented an all-inclusive athletic program. There are no tryouts at Wye River; anyone who wants to play can, and you may have even seen Aull coaching volleyball. On the court, students who never imagined they would play a team sport learn to take risks and become invested in their teammates’ personal growth. Aull has always been pleased to provide opportunities for the students that they had never pursued in the past.
She said, “Our students often miss the extracurricular activities like athletics or drama because they are so busy keeping their heads above water with academics, or they can’t keep up the GPA to be eligible.” Talented, seasoned athletes find a place to shine.
Near the end of her career, Aull paved the way for one of Wye River’s largest milestones to date; the Middendorf MakerSpace. Through grant funding, a cottage adjacent to the school was purchased, renovated and converted into a space where students can design, create and build. Established around Project-Based Learning curricula and real-world problem solving, the MakerSpace is a dedicated, equipped space where students develop the skills needed for success in the 21st century.
Even amid the coronavirus crisis, Aull and the faculty and staff of Wye River have gone beyond expectations to deliver the highest quality education possible for its students while they learn online. Aull established a crisis management team early on as the first murmurings of COVID-19 began. Closely watching announcements made by Governor Larry Hogan and keeping up to date on AIMS’ recommendations, the school was prepared for potential closings. They planned a trial remote learning day before school closures were required, and without missing a beat, were able to open up remote classrooms the very day schools were closed. The staff assures synchronous instruction from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and opportunities for social-emotional support, especially critical during these times. An intact 1-1 laptop environment has proven to be a huge asset in this process, in place since the school’s founding.
Aull said, “Despite this twist in how I depart, I believe strongly that Corona has its benefits. The Board and staff look forward to embedding changes in the way WRUS will educate students going forward.”
This independent college and career preparatory school currently serves 57 bright students with learning differences. Aull has led Wye River year after year ensuring exceptional enrollment growth, financial stability, and creative programming. Hundreds of students’ lives have been changed by her important work and the faculty and staff she guides to implement her visions.
Aull said, “Beginning with Anne Arundel County Early Childhood Special Education, to an elementary/middle Radcliffe Creek School to here, where I found my landing place, I have observed, and hold fast to one enduring and universal truth:
“Children and teens with learning differences, when understood, respected and supported, have an unlimited potential to grow to be productive, happy, independent adults. And that is all that their families really want.”
Aull’s dedication and passion for serving such a critical need has opened up a world of options and pathways for the students who enter Wye River’s doors. Her legacy ensures that this transformative work continues.
The Chrissy Aull Great Teachers for Great Minds fund has been created by the Board of Trustees to honor Aull and to benefit faculty and staff professional development. To honor her life’s work and to contribute to share your support for Wye River, visit wyeriverupperschool.org/support/.