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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

There are many reasons a person, in any field, and his or her employer separate. When a head of school voluntarily or involuntarily separates from his or her private school employer though, there is often a vacuum, a void, a hole left unfilled for the entire community of parents, faculty, and staff.

Changes in heads of school at independent schools are not so unusual, and particularly in NYC, which has such a high concentration of Firm Schools. Changes may be abrupt (e.g., Irwin Shlachter “no longer” with Claremont Preparatory School) or prolonged (e.g., Nancy Shulman leaving 92Y for Avenues: The World School), amicable or hostile, voluntary or forced, etc. At some point in the process, search firms (e.g., The Education Group, Wickenden Associates, etc.), are often contracted to help a school find their next leader.

In his article, “Head Departures” (June 25, 2004; updated Nov. 30, 2010), Patrick F. Bassett, President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), talks about the ways that independent schools manage the separation from a head of school.

Regarding the announcement of the separation: “Together, the board and head should plan and rehearse the language of public and private announcements about the departure.” In one of his Important Points Here, Mr. Bassett writes, “An acceptable (and true) joint announcement would indicate, typically…

  • Board appreciation, publicly and generously, for the contributions that the head has made and plans later in the year for appropriate celebration and recognition.
  • Head acknowledgment that given changing priorities for the school over time that call for leadership with different interests, inclinations, and/or skills, the head and board have agreed amicably to seek different futures.
  • Board plans for including faculty and parents in the process of articulating future goals and finding the school leader eager to equip the school to meet those goals.
  • Board and head admission (as needed) that lack of communication regarding this change in leadership has to this point fueled some wild speculation and many erroneous assumptions, as is typical in these instances, but that the head and board are of one mind at this point on the wisdom of the change and the goals of this final year of the head’s leadership at the school.”

A recent example of how the separation between a school and head of school may be handled occurred at The Brearley School.

The Brearley School is an independent K-12 all girls preparatory school in NYC with a longstanding reputation for excellence. It is one of the more established schools in the city dating all the way back to 1884, with such notable alumnae as Kyra Sedgwick, Caroline Kennedy, Tea Leoni, Betsy Gotbaum, and Ruth Messinger. Forbes ranked it #4 in 2010 on its list of top 20 prep schools in America.

Earlier this month, according to the New York Times, Head of School, Dr. Stephanie J. Hull, abruptly announced that she was leaving. Dr. Hull, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, had been Brearley’s 14th Head of School, and served for 8 years, was the first black woman to hold the position. In a somewhat unusual move, Brearley’s 13th Head of School, Dr. Priscilla Winn Barlow, who had retired in 2003, has become the Interim Head of School while Brearley searches for a new leader.

Amongst the key statements/quotes from the New York Times articles that mirror Mr. Bassett’s recommendations:

  • Alan K. Jones, the head of Brearley’s board of trustees, praised Dr. Hull’s accomplishments, including leading the largest capital campaign in the school’s history, making the student body and faculty more diverse, increasing financial aid and acquiring properties for the school’s expansion.
  • Mr. Jones promised that a proper tribute would be scheduled for the fall along with the commissioning of a portrait of Dr. Hull to join her 13 predecessors on the walls of the school.
  • In a letter to families, Dr. Hull said the school had reached the next phase of its development, requiring a new leader….“Although it is short notice for such a departure, I am going to accept this offer so that I can make use of this time to reflect and then to explore other opportunities,” she said.

While The Brearley School seems to have handled this separation according to independent school standards, the abruptness of Dr. Hull’s departure (particularly since she was there for 8 years) and announcing the separation right before the July 4th weekend, has led to speculation in certain circles. The New York Times published not 1, not 2, but 3 stories on this separation, with the 3rd co-written by Jenny Anderson & Winnie Hu; reporting contributed by Michael Barbaro, Elizabeth A. Harris, Tamar Lewin, Sarah Maslin Nir & Anna M. Phillips; and research contributed by Kitty Bennett. Yes, 8 people worked on that last article, but we digress.

Given the prevalence of confidentiality agreements, and as the case with any separation, only the parties involved (and their lawyers) know the actual details. The Brearley School and Dr. Hull seem to have followed the standard model handling this difficult situation.

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