It would be hard to think of a job that requires a broader skill set then that of private school headmaster. The wisdom of Abe Lincoln, the vision of Steve Jobs, the diplomatic skills of Hillary Clinton and the moral fiber of Nelson Mandela would be nice for starters. On top of that, a deep love of children and the ability to gracefully strong-arm parents and alumni to ever- increasing heights of giving. Advanced IT capabilities a must.
This year, for reasons most likely due to perceptions of a recovering economy, four of Baltimore’s leading private schools are seeking to replace their current headmasters. St.Paul’s and Gilman heads Tom Reid and John Schmick respectively, are retiring. Calvert head Andy Martire is moving on to the Kincaid School in Houston, Texas. St. Paul’s School for Girls former head Monica Gillespie announced her departure in June of 2011 and Lila Lohr has completed her year as interim head. Into the breach will step four educational leaders who may or may not be familiar with their new schools, or with the greater Baltimore community. What will they be like? Inquiring minds want to know.
As an overview, it is worth noting that all of the schools have employed search firms, different ones in each case. The average salary of a private school headmaster is between $200,000 and $400,000 with all four of the schools providing housing near or on the school grounds. It’s a good life, as academic careers go, and all of these schools are in the fortunate position of being able to afford exactly the candidate they need. While each school has a clearly stated set of prerequisites for the job, the “we’ll know it when we see it” factor naturally looms large.
According to Nick Cortezi, head of the search committee at Gilman School, which is rumored to have recently arrived at a short list of candidates, the new man (or, yes, woman) will be “a leader, not a manager.” Someone whose relationship with the boys is paramount, but who will be also able to “steward the school through necessary changes, incorporating its best traditions,” he says. As one father puts it, “At the end of the day, the kids want to be like the headmaster, so it’s important who that person is.”
Legendary head of school Redmond Finney is the man that Gilman has long looked to as the ideal. Mr. Finney himself, now retired at 82 years old, notes that the headmaster, “elevates the spirit and the purpose of the school.” Acknowledging the importance of building superior business, development and management teams, he nevertheless feels strongly that a headmaster’s most vital function is to be omnipresent in the school among the students and faculty.
“In a world that competes so aggressively and seductively for the attention of young people, the head can be a beacon of moral clarity. A premium should be placed on finding leaders of character and charisma who consistently demonstrate caring and spontaneous love for growing children,” says Finney.
Impossible to disagree. But it does beg the question, can this ideal exist in a world where parents routinely march into the office of the headmaster to complain that their kid didn’t get into his or her top college choice?
The most commonly voiced concern among Gilman parents interviewed for this article was not college admissions, but the cultural dominance of the school’s nationally ranked football program. The next headmaster will have to continue to try to strike the right balance between athletics and academics, a challenge that all Gilman headmasters have had to face. In a school where integrity is a strongly held principle, enforcement of the honor system was also mentioned as a priority. On the other hand, two Gilman boys interviewed had no concerns about the honor program, said that the “football team is awesome,” but felt that more attention could be paid to the food.
Parents and faculty were extensively involved early in the search process at Gilman says Mr. Cortezi, particularly in the development of the Head of School Opportunity Statement, available on-line. This may help to explain the high level of confidence expressed by parents. “I’ve been very surprised that there’s not more discussion about choosing the headmaster,” says a new Gilman mother. “At our last school, the selection was a year long, angst-ridden process that was a constant topic of conversation. Here, not so much.”
At the Calvert School, disappointment at the loss of longtime head and Calvert alumnus Andy Martire is balanced by hopes that the arrival of a new head will offer opportunities for change. Carville Collins, search committee head, board member and alumnus, remarks that Calvert is still in the process of choosing a search committee, and that parents and faculty will be duly consulted as the process moves forward. “We encourage and anticipate applicants from all over the country,” says Collins,“we’re looking for experience, achievement and integrity, someone who is prepared to maintain and advance Calvert’s standard of excellence.”
Calvert seems torn between wanting to continue the cozy, old fashioned sensibility that attracts many parents and a readiness for a more open approach. “Calvert has been very much of an insider’s club,” claims one parent.“Which is great if you are an insider. But at this point, I think we could use a view from beyond the Baltimore hothouse.”
Generously endowed, Calvert has recently embarked on a major building project to further expand its facilities, with the idea of better integrating the lower school with the newer middle school. Inevitably, there are doubts. “I would like to see the school remain small,” says another parent, “I’m not that comfortable with all the marketing and expansion talk, and I hope the new guy will be faculty and student oriented, rather than business oriented.” One Calvert student has a slightly different criteria. “I just want someone fun — not a nitpicker.”
Louis Sarkes is the head of the search committee at St. Paul’s School, a calm and confident voice for the selection process. “Above all, we want someone with an ability to relate to the kids, who really connects with them.” So much so that a short list of candidates will soon be brought into the school to meet both faculty and students. “We won’t be asking for direct feedback from the kids,” says Sarkes, “but you can tell a lot by their reaction, and we’ll be looking at that.”
St. Paul’s has several factors that could present a slightly different set of requirements than other schools. Founded as an Episcopalian School, the new head will not necessarily be a co-religionist, but “it’s important that they are able to respect and promote that tradition,” says Farkes. It also has the distinction of having an International Baccalaureate program, which is somewhat unique in the US. Asked whether the new headmaster should be experienced in the IB, Farkes responds, “Experience with the IB is important, but not critical. It’s something you can learn. What is more important is to have a good communicator, who can explain its place in the overall mission of the school.”
St. Paul’s parents are positive regarding the school’s handling of the search. “ I have to say that they seem to have it together,” says one mom. “The gossip on the soccer sidelines is pretty low key — just the hope that it’s someone who has a hands-on approach to kids, who understands age-appropriate behavior, and won’t focus too much on the minutia of the rules.” A number of parents wanted more focus on academics, but an equal number did not. Do parents feel involved? “Definitely. There have been a lot of chances to talk – breakfast meetings, Parent’s Night – they’re always willing to address questions.”
Across the fields at the St. Paul’s Girls School, a faculty member remarks, “There has been a lot of transition here. We are looking forward to some stability.” Parents seem generally happy, although many would like SPGS to offer more connection with the boy’s school, for social as well as academic reasons, particularly in the upper school. A group of SPGS seniors even felt more strongly that they want a lot of interaction with the new arrival, noting that Lila Lohr knew all the senior girls by name. “A good listener” is what is they most cared about, and perhaps not surprisingly, “especially in the upper school.”
Search Committee co-head Cliff Lull says that St. Paul’s Girls School is in the final stages of the search. “We have been gratified by the level of interest in the position, and we now have four semi-finalists that we will be talking to in the next few weeks.” SPGS, unlike St. Paul’s Boys, does not currently offer the IB and has no plans to change. “That is not a discussion we are having now,” says Lull, although he acknowledges that they are looking for candidates “to co-ordinate at various levels with the head of the boy’s school. These are independent searches, and we are committed to educating girls. But we would like it (the level of interaction between the girls and boys schools) to be as open as possible.” Most of all, “We are looking for a nimble, innovative person who can take our agenda for the school to the next generation of leadership.”
Private schools today feel strongly the need to be all things: to have great arts, great academics, great facilities, great athletics, and great morale. They are under continual pressure to attract new families in a shrinking pool of applicants who can afford private school. They need to present well – bigger buildings, more fields, sophisticated arts centers – to attract those families; and for this, continual fund-raising is deemed essential. At the same time, they are sincere in wanting a head who is a nurturing presence and a moral leader.
And so from Baltimore, a prayer goes up. “Send us a headmaster who is…omnipotent.”
From their mouths to God’s ears.
Cynthia McIntyre writes Hot House and is a regular contributor to Baltimore Fishbowl. She is a parent of an upper school student at Gilman School.
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