Dr. Ryan Hitchman: The man, the myth, the Lightridge legend


Tessa Mlaker

On a cold March morning, Dr. Ryan Hitchman stands outside to greet students as they arrive at school.

Alexis Ford, Staff Writer

Looking through the door of Principal Ryan Hitchman’s office, one thing stands out. In the center of the room is a yellow checkered diner table. The table belonged to his grandmother. When she passed away, it was the only item he asked for. 

Hitchman says that growing up his grandmother, “Would take me out to Gettysburg. We’d go to different battlefields.” 

By his nostalgic tone, you can tell his grandmother fostered his love of learning. She was in the habit of buying him books.

 “You don’t know how important it is for somebody to buy you a book,” he said. “ A book to go ahead and read. It is that important.” 

He explained that his grandmother always instilled in him a mindset to have “confidence in yourself, knowing what your interests are, and knowing that you can have a variety of interests.” She always assured him that “you can do anything you want to do that you set your mind to.” 

Education was always something that was valued within Hitchman’s childhood home. Even though he “wasn’t an A student, or even a B student” and was “okay with getting Cs and Ds;” his attitude was changed by something his father said during his sophomore year of high school.

“Ryan, you need to make a decision, in life,” his father said. “ You’re either going to work with your head or you’re going to work with your hands.”

 Hitchman quickly decided that a life of physical labor was not for him after he went to lay brick with his uncle. This was “not fun during winter in western Pennsylvania.” That experience made him decide that he wanted to go to college.

“My grades got better, and I stopped getting into trouble,” he said.

Hitchman went to Clarion University of Pennsylvania and got his undergraduate degree.

 “College is a completely different experience than anything you’ve ever done before,” he said, before explaining that he was never very involved in high school. 

“I was not in student government during high school. I was not a popular kid in high school, far from it,” he said.  However, he wanted to create a different experience for himself in college. 

I was not a popular kid in high school, far from it.

— Dr. Ryan Hitchman

Cheerleading is how Hitchman got more involved.

“ In order to succeed you have to do things that are outside your comfort zone,” he said. “You have to be open to new opportunities. Cheerleading helped me land a job where I spent summers touring the country, teaching at cheerleading camps.” 

  For two years during college he worked for Universal Cheerleaders Association, a large national cheerleading organization.  He specifically taught stunts, which is where a group of cheerleaders act as a base and then lift or throw team members up into the air.. Hitchman was able to ” do a roundoff back hand and a spring back tuck that I taught myself.” 

 “I was able to travel around the country,” he said. “Got to travel with other cheerleaders. Usually they sent one male out with two or three female cheerleaders, and I was always one that drove everywhere.” 

Hitchman was not only a cheerleader. At Clarion, he got involved in student government.

“I served as the treasurer for the Student Government Association for two years,” he said. “ Then got on the Activities Board as well.”

 Hitchman describes his time on the Activities Board as, “interesting.” He got to meet several artists: Coolio, Rusted Root, Jackyl, and Damn Yankees. From this experience he learned that “you never know who you’re talking to, what that connection is going to be. Even though the person you are talking to may not own a business or company, they know someone who knows someone that may be able to help you get you to where you need to be.” 

Hitchman did not immediately choose to pursue education. After graduation, he  started out at a company called On Target Mapping. The company revolved around Geographic Information Systems. He says his main projects were to “examine sediment that was floating into Mobile Bay, which is down in Alabama. And then I started analyzing the Mississippi River Delta and why it was a dead-zone. Also we had to map out all of the water lines and gas lines in the state of Iowa.”

He continued on with GIS for around seven  months, but one day, “took a look around and no one was really happy. It was just people looking at computer banks.” 

That is when Hitchman decided to put his teaching degree to use. 

“I decided to go become a teacher,” said Hitchman. “Ten years later, On Target Mapping became Google Maps. I still knew a few people who worked there, and they made a lot of money, but that just was not for me.” 

Hitchman had a particular affinity for teaching history and social sciences. He started in North Carolina at a high school, near Topsail Beach.

“If you were in ninth grade, you had Mr. Hitchman for World Geography; that’s how small the school was.” 

After his time in North Carolina, he “taught in Maryland for three years, and then became an Assistant Principal there for four years, and then became a principal there.”

Over this time span Hitchman taught pretty much every subject within the social studies field: US History, Government, Civics, World History. 

A very big part of Hitchman’s career revolved around coaching. He became a coach for any sport that had a vacancy. What got him hired at his first school was his flexibility.

“I could coach boys soccer in the fall, wrestling and cheerleading in the winter, and girls soccer in the spring,” he said.  He also spent some time coaching pole vaulting, track and field, and girls basketball. 

He moved to Virginia and received his doctorate from Virginia Tech and then moved to Loudoun County and became the principal at Belmont Ridge Middle School.

Hitchman has been a school administrator for the last 20 years, but his last four years at Lightridge have been especially unique. Lightridge opened in the midst of a global pandemic.

“It was a journey that no one else had ever experienced before, so when you open a brand new high school during a global pandemic, in a 100% virtual learning environment, you have to know… no one’s ever done this before,” said Hitchman.  “We’re going to be trailblazers. We’re going to continue to move forward. We’re going to find a way.”

 A majority of staff interviews took place online. Dr. Hitchman says he specifically looked for staff “that were open minded, willing to take on new challenges, and able to collaborate in a virtual environment.” 

When he was no longer able to meet students and parents in-person at “Jog with the Principal” runs or his “Coffee and Chat” sessions, Hitchman hosted virtual weekly discussions with students. Loudoun County even nicknamed Hitchman the “Lonely Lightridge Principal.” 

“150 students would show up on a Google Meet on a Friday afternoon talking about what they wanted Lightridge to be,”  said Hitchman, referring to the time before the school started.  He explained his guiding force during that unprecedented time was remembering “that things were not about me. It was about our students. It was about our community.” 

Since Lightridge’s first year, the school has doubled in size. 

“Although we are still dealing with the effects of COVID, no other high school has experienced this much astounding growth in this little time,” said Hitchman, who stresses that his top priority is the wants of the students.

“Inclusivity, equity were all things that students said they wanted in their school,” he said. “In order to achieve this, we follow a shared leadership model in which I go to staff and students and see what they want.” 

It was this leadership model that saved Lightridge’s beloved Strike Time, the ten minutes of unstructured time students use to decompress. Hitchman said at the end of last year that he was planning to get rid of strike time due to the risk of chaos ensuing with ten minutes of unstructured time.

 “But after speaking with students and speaking with staff, they really value that time during the day,” he said. “ It allows students who have early release to leave, it allows teachers to go to the restroom, it allows them to get that last cup of coffee before we have that last block of the day.”

 He also created a master schedule sub-committee in order to fit the needs and wants of both the students and staff at Lightridge.

 “As the leader, it’s not everyone doing what I tell them to do,” he said. “As a leader it is my job to find out what other people think and then based upon that information, I then have to make a decision.” 

When asked about a Lightridge success he is most proud of, Hitchman reveals,  “that our equity committee being asked to present a lesson about microaggressions at a school board meeting was extremely valuable.”

 Hitchman believes that students being able to advocate for themselves is of utmost importance to create a strong learning environment. 

“It is important that our students share their experiences with the staff so that as a school we can grow. I never want to become stagnant,” he said. Some faculty from other schools, and even faculty at Lightridge, are shocked at how well Lightridge students can advocate for themselves and others. 

As a student, you should ask questions. Your future is the most important. When you leave Lightridge High School, you’re going to have to be able to speak up and advocate for yourself.

— Dr. Ryan Hitchman

“It’s not a sense of entitlement,” he said. “ As a student, you should ask questions. Your future is the most important. When you leave Lightridge High School, you’re going to have to be able to speak up and advocate for yourself.” 

Hitchman has garnered widespread affection among the students and staff at Lightridge. 

“It is clear to students and staff that he values our school beyond words,” said English teacher Lin Rudder, “His humble nature and love for his students are what have made him cherished  at Lightridge and in the surrounding community. This is a great place to work and the best job I’ve ever had.” 

Senior Claire Tate said, “I feel that Dr. Hitchman is loved by many students due to his openness to ideas and trying new things. People find it admirable that an administrator genuinely cares about what his students are doing.” 

Another senior, Cami Cowboy, explained that “Dr. Hitchman is interactive with everyone at Lightridge from teachers to students. He is a principal that is always trying to do more for his school.” 

When asked why he thinks he is so loved, he immediately becomes bashful.  It is clear that his main focus is on students first and foremost. Every time a question was asked about his accomplishments,  Hitchman redirected to speak about the accomplishments of his students.

“I do not take compliments very well,” he said. “This is just what I think principals should do. This is what the job is. This is what I signed up for. I always tell people I don’t go to work, I get to go to school. I’ve been going to school since 1979.”