Big Fish: Garrison Forest School Starts the School Year Under New Leadership for the First Time in 20 Years

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Kim Roberts

This fall, for the first time in two decades, the Garrison Forest School community welcomes a change in leadership. Dr. Kim Roberts, a California native with an impressive and varied background in education, will take the place of long-term head Peter O’Neill, who led the independent K-12 girls’ school in Owings Mills for 20 years before retiring at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Replacing the beloved O’Neill, who had become a fixture at the school during his lengthy tenure, will be a challenge. But Roberts, who exudes confidence, youthful energy, and a keen sharpness, appears more than prepared to greet the task head on. Also in her favor, Roberts is a firm believer in single-sex education, of which she herself is a product. Recently, Roberts broke from her busy start-of-the-year schedule to share a bit about herself, what drew her to Garrison Forest, and her vision for the school’s  future.

You were living on the West Coast when you interviewed and accepted the position at Garrison Forest. How did you know this job, on the other side of the country, would be a good fit?

I had spent ten years in Charlottesville, Virginia, so I felt like the Mid-Atlantic was somewhat known to me. My husband is from Virginia. I also lived in Washington, D.C. for a couple years. But more than the city itself, the school felt like a good fit.

Peter O’Neill was head of the school at Garrison for 20 years. What’s it feel like to step into the position after him, given that he was a fixture here for so long?

He was incredibly supportive of me, and continues to be. That helps a lot. It’s a little daunting to follow a veteran. My feeling is that he was adored in the Garrison community, but they’re also excited for change. And, he always felt like a woman should be leading the school.

What’s at the top of your priority list as the new head of Garrison Forest?

This first year, I just need to get to know the people in the community. Schools are all about people anyway. So my top priority is to get to know the students, families, and people who work here. Beyond that, I’m really trying to look closely at our academic program, to make sure we’re delivering the best and most relevant program we can.

There’s a lot of talk these days about 21st century learning. You’ve described Garrison Forest as an exemplary 21st century learning environment. What do you mean by that?

I think Garrison was very early in this trend toward looking at what students really need to succeed in the 21st century. The school had a lot of foresight, and created opportunities for a lot of real-world, experiential learning. Ten years ago, Garrison established the WISE program, where girls work in laboratories at Hopkins. WISE is a signature program, but it was also an orientation toward thinking about how to expose girls to the world beyond this beautiful, but insular, campus. Ten years out, we’re honing in on things like: What does leadership and service learning look like, and how do we make sure that every girl at Garrison gets access to this type of STEM experience?

You mention experiential learning. Do you have any ideas about how to implement more of that into the curriculum at Garrison?

We have a lot of potential to interact with nature more than we currently do. On our campus we have a pond, and an old ropes course in the woods behind us that hasn’t been used in a few years. There’s potential to develop a gardening program; we have the space for it. I feel like getting out in nature is another way to harness experiential learning.

What are you most looking forward to as head of Garrison Forest?

The thing I love about working in schools is that you develop relationships that are lasting and inter-generational. I also like the fact that it’s a pre-K through 12 school; I’m very excited that there are very little people here. Watching girls develop over time is so rewarding and fun.

What do you anticipate being your greatest challenge as head of Garrison Forest?

I think the biggest challenge will be balancing my work and home life. I have two kids, and a husband, and we all live on campus. This is new. We’ve never lived on a campus. I’ve never been head of a school.

You’ve said there’s a consensus around what it means to be a “Garrison student.” Can you describe what you mean by that?

The first thing I would say is that they’re really happy girls here. That is palpable. They’re interested in a lot of different things. There’s not one type of Garrison student. They embrace the fact that they don’t have to be a certain way. There’s room to be both an athlete and a performer, or someone interested in social justice and also in being a strong student who enjoys playing the violin. Students here also really value relationships, with each other and adults. Even when I was interviewing, girls would stop me and want to talk.

Between 2003 and 2009, you were the director of development at Mark Day School in San Rafael, California.  Talk about how this experience in the fundraising world will come in handy as you lead Garrison Forrest?

Actually, the more relevant development work I did was at my alma mater, Castilleja School, an all-girls’ school in Palo Alto, as assistant head of school and director of advancement. Today, all heads have to be fundraisers. It’s part of the job. What I saw in Silicon Valley when I was at Castilleja was a way of fundraising that was a little more nimble than the annual fund—although you have to do that too—really looking at donor interest and seeing how you can harvest that in ways that can be meaningful for the school. Fundraising, for me, is obviously about advancing the school. But it’s also about how you engage donors in the life of the school.

You have a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, and have taught literature there. Will you have the opportunity to teach any classes at Garrison?

I hope to eventually. I certainly envision a moment when I can bring that background to bear, whether it’s teaching a full class or just little segments. One of the things I’m excited to do is spend time in the classrooms, and see what’s going on. In school, my training as a writer and a reader was much more in contemporary culture than in literature. It required me to answer questions about how you analyze media. This is important in a girl’s world. There are so many images coming at them; how do they make sense of them?

With such a well-rounded background in education coming into this position, was there anything specific you did to prepare for your new role as head of Garrison?

I haven’t done a lot of formal public speaking. So I did do some formal training. It taught me a lot about not just how to do it effectively, but to really think about your audience, and message. I learned I need to move when I speak. The instructor said to me: Just walk. Just move.

One of your former classmates at Castilleja, an all-girls school, predicted that you would one day return to work there, because you so believed in and “lived” the all-girls’ education. Talk a little about your belief in an all-girls’ education.

I am a product of it. At a time in my life when there were so many distractions, I felt very focused in an all-girls environment. The biggest piece is that there are so many opportunities for girls when they’re in this environment. Every leader is going to be a girl.

And, when you think about how girls learn best, it’s a combination of challenge and nurture simultaneously. There are also very specific areas where girls tend to need more support, and others where they don’t. Most girls need more help with spatial reasoning. Knowing that, we can create programs that support that. Girls really need to know the relevance of things—they don’t typically get the same charge boys do out of just solving a problem. The process really matters. Girls’ schools create a context that is motivating for girls.

Then there’s the focus on relationships. Understanding different development moments, we can help girls be proactive in managing their relationship dynamics. From an early age, in lower school, we talk about relationships.

There are a fair amount of all-girls’ schools in the area. What makes Garrison stand apart from the others?

I think what we do really well at Garrison is treat girls as individuals, meet them where they are, and support them in reaching their full potential. For instance, I sent letters out to alums—from the ‘60s and on—to get information on their experience at Garrison. One responded: I had a teacher who said: You should take this AP class, you should run for this position. It’s the sense of helping girls gain confidence. Those moments can be really life- shifting.

You’ve spent time as an educator on both the East and West Coasts. Any noticeable differences about the approach to education, from curriculum to parental attitudes?

Probably in every market, you’ll find schools on a spectrum: some more progressive, others more traditional. But one big difference between East and West Coasts is that there aren’t many pre-K through 12 models on the West Coast. Coming from Silicon Valley, not surprisingly, many of the students are children of engineers and there is a real emphasis on mastering a STEM education. Parents do value different things in different regions. Parents are drawn to Garrison because they like the feeling of nurturing here, but also college prep. On the West Coast, it’s generally a little more hard-driving.

You were born and raised in California. Anything about the lifestyle on the West Coast that was difficult to leave?

My preconceived fears were around not being able to be outside as much. I’m a runner. I was nervous about where I could run here. But I have run more on trails here than I did in California. I am going to miss the food in San Francisco. My husband is a chef, so I won’t miss it too much.

You not only work on campus, but you live here too. Have you found any favorite haunts or activities in and around Baltimore, places where you and your family can get away?

We haven’t done a ton of exploring. We’ve gone hiking in Oregon Ridge. We visited Broadkill Beach in Delaware, which backs up to a nature preserve. My daughter is 10, my son is 8. They had never seen lightening bugs, deer, foxes. We’re all trying to learn how to ride [horses]. The escape for me is about having good connected time with my family. We are big food people. Since Best of Baltimore dining picks came out, we’ve been working our way through the list.

What do you do for ‘me’ time?

Running; that’s a big thing for me. The first week I was here, one of the teachers asked me to be on a relay team in the Baltimore Marathon. Exercise is my biggest outlet.


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