`Pressure cookers' wilt headmasters

Turnover: The departures of the heads of several private schools in the Baltimore area reflect increased demands of the job.

March 27, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

The era when headmasters such as W. Byron Forbush II and Redmond C.S. Finney governed Baltimore-area private schools for decades is over.

These days, many heads of private schools here and elsewhere in the country spend less than 10 years in the job - a far cry from the 38 years Forbush spent at Friends School or the 24 Finney spent at the Gilman School.

The reason, educators say, is that running a private school in today's faster-paced, more demanding culture is tougher than it used to be.

A head of school must have the skills of a corporate manager in addition to being an academic leader, says Jean Waller Brune, head of Roland Park Country School and president of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools.

"In the world of independent schools, staying for 30 years isn't a reality any more," Brune said.

Over the past few months, the heads of three private schools - Robert W. Hallett of St. Paul's, Kathleen Jameson of Oldfields and Deborah M. Cook of St. Timothy's - announced their departures.

The board of Friends School dismissed Jon M. Harris, who had replaced Forbush four years ago. St. Paul's School for Girls and the Bryn Mawr School hired new heads.

The head of Gilman, Jon McGill, has been on the job since July, replacing Finney's successor, Archibald R. Montgomery IV, who lasted eight years.

"There has been a seismic shift in the positions of heads of schools, but this is not a Baltimore phenomenon," Hallett said. "These changes are happening across the country. It appears to be shocking because there were so many seasoned veterans here in Baltimore with unprecedented tenures at the schools.

"Baltimore was lucky to have that kind of leadership. But it was at a time when the job was not nearly as complex as it is now."

The average tenure of a head of school nationally is somewhere between six and 10 years, depending on whose estimate is used, but the one resounding theme that the educators agree on is that the demands of the job cause many school leaders to "burn out."

Educational pressure cooker

Jeff Moredock, chief operating officer of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, called Baltimore's schools "a bit of a pressure cooker," but said high stress levels can be found at the top at highly competitive private schools in most major metropolitan areas.

Evelyn A. Flory, who is retiring after seven years at St. Paul's School for Girls, believes that a private school leader's job has become so labor-intensive that many last only four or five years.

Today's school leaders must bring a far broader perspective to the job with more business-related skills, said Flory, an educator for more than 30 years. She believes a degree in business administration or a law degree would be helpful in running a school today.

Flory oversees an $8 million budget (up from about $4.5 million when she started) and 100 employees, and deals with everything from the curriculum to parents.

"The demands are almost impossible to meet," she said. "The heads of schools have to be more like chief executive officers."

Hallett, who is leaving St. Paul's School after 17 years to run the Edward E. Ford Foundation in Washington, compares today's private schools to Nasdaq companies with huge budgets and strategic plans.

Leading a private school requires a "high level of management skills" because the schools are dynamic institutions, Hallett says. It takes a skill that one develops over time to run them.

Understanding the governance of the school is important, too, he says, because that's where the head of the school and the board of trustees work together.

"This is one of the best jobs I have ever had," he said. "It has been demanding, challenging and creative." But he said he also knew he was ready for a change after working 80 to 90 hours a week for long periods of time.

Agnes C. Underwood of the National Cathedral School in Washington, a former head of Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, said a head of school must answer to five different constituencies: the board, parents, teachers, students and alumni.

"These constituencies require a lot of our time. But it's important to build trust among all of them," said Underwood, who recently announced that she would leave National Cathedral at the end of the 2002-2003 school year.

At Educators' Collaborative, a national education consortium that conducts searches for heads of schools, associate James L. Marks III agrees that a position as head of school "has become far more complex and involved" over the past decade.

"Parents are far more demanding of heads of school, and with higher tuitions, parents also are expecting more from the schools," he said.

Getting no respect

Oldfields' Jameson, who will leave at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, thinks of her job as a constant balancing act for the school to be successful.

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