Head of School
An exceptional life begins with an exceptional education. The early years are crucial, and at St. John’s, we believe children are best served and childhood honored via values-driven teaching and learning in a joyful and spiritual environment.
Through a widely acclaimed, vigorous academic program, our enriched curriculum purposefully educates and nurtures the whole child, challenges our students to explore and ask questions, and rewards them not only for subject mastery but also for intellectual risk-taking. They are scholars, athletes, stewards of the environment, community-servers, inquisitive problem-solvers, and children of impressive character.
Education is the single most important investment parents make in shaping their child's future. St. John’s families know their children enjoy a transformative and unparalleled academic experience without the expectation of inordinate financial cost. Moreover, as a school purposefully 'sized' to ensure each child receives the attention and support they need to thrive, children do not 'fall through the cracks' at St. John's.
A website can only give a window into the life of a school. I invite you to come and see for yourself the good and the great at St. John’s, and how our graduates are prepared for lives of learning and service. It would be wonderful to meet and spend time with you. Go Eagles!
Head of School
- A School Can Have a Soul...Or not
- What Makes a Great Private School?
- Go to High School? No Thanks.
- What Makes a Great Teacher?
- The St. John's Way
Many years ago, I interviewed for a position at a nationally prominent school in the northeast. During my closing meeting with the head of school, I asked, “What do you see as the biggest challenge or challenges facing the next upper school head?” I’ve never forgotten his reply: “We have deep wait lists at every grade and buckets of money. Our facilities are the envy of every school in the area. The rich and famous send their children here. Yet our school has lost its soul.” Taken back by his candor, I asked him to elaborate. “Too many believe money and buildings matter most to the school,” he answered. “There is a divide between upper school students and faculty. An unhealthy culture of intense competition has taken hold among older students that is not only manifesting itself in behavioral misconduct but is also trickling down to the younger grades. And we have grown in numbers to the point some feel we are more impersonal institution than close community. Employee morale is low, but at least everything looks great to the parents. What would you do to fix what needs fixing?” I thanked him for his honesty and frankness, wished him and the school well, and soon thereafter withdrew my candidacy.
To those on the outside, some schools can appear to have everything. At least everything important only superficially when it comes to children’s spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development. St. John’s is blessed with an uncommonly potent soul and clear vision for education that sees it as having a higher purpose. Both are reflected in the importance the school places on supporting and guiding each child’s spiritual development so beliefs, religious or otherwise, help inform a perspective on life, interest in, and respect for different people’s feelings and values. We encourage their moral development by helping them learn to recognize the difference between right and wrong and their readiness to apply this understanding in their own lives, their understanding of the consequences of their actions, and their interest in investigating moral and ethical issues.
To support each child’s social wellbeing, we help them develop the confidence to use of a range of social skills in different contexts, including working and socializing with those from different backgrounds, by encouraging them to be willing to participate in a variety of social settings - including by volunteering, cooperating with others and being able to resolve conflicts effectively, and by developing an interest in the way communities function. We want every graduate to leave St. John’s with ‘cultural confidence and awareness’ – an understanding and appreciation of the wide range of cultural influences that have shaped their own heritage, as well as interest in exploring, understanding of, and respect for cultural diversity in the local, national and global communities.
Of the many things I love about being part of St. John’s, three are particularly valuable to me. First, we are a cohesive school community bonded by shared values and desire to serve and care for children. St. John’s is a good place for a child to be when things are going well in their life and a great place for them to be when they are not. This happens primarily because our school size is neither too big nor too small, and we purposefully provide multiple layers of care and support to make sure no child ‘falls through the cracks.’ Each St. John’s student is known, nurtured, and loved, and learns in a joyful and spiritual environment. We strive to instill in them a sense of enjoyment and fascination in learning about themselves, others, and the world around them. We are truly blessed to work with wonderful children. They are the living embodiment of the soul of our school.
Second, as the cost of private education nationwide continues to outpace and out strip the ability of many middle-class families to provide their children an alternative to state-run education, I believe it will become increasingly more and more difficult for many schools to justify their expense. St. John’s does not only enjoy 70 years of demonstrated academic excellence and impressive student outcomes - it has also stayed true to its founding principle to ensure an outstanding education remains financially accessible to mission-critical families, regardless of economic status. In a world in which “reasonable” might be decreasingly used to describe the cost of private education, St. John’s continues to be purposely priced – the least expensive private school of those typically considered by families in our local market – to continue to provide the diverse socio-economic environment so central to our mission and so important to children’s development.
Third, you. Since joining this community, I have come to know many school families and friends of the school and look forward to getting to know even more. I continue to be struck by your love for your children and commitment to providing them an excellent, economically accessible, values-driven education. Your support for the school and those dedicated to serving your children inspires me and my team more than you know. I recognize you have many choices when identifying the best environment for your child(ren), and I do not take you or your enrollment at St. John’s for granted. Your continued loyalty to our school and willingness to provide your children’s teachers the tools they need is truly humbling. We greatly value your partnership. Thank you for sharing your wonderful children with us. Go Eagles!
Determining the best educational pathway for their child is one of the earliest and, arguably, the most consequential things a parent can do. It can also be transformative in providing a child the knowledge, skills, characteristics, and inspiration that are integral to a life well lived. And what parent doesn’t want that for their child? Yet families who approach education with the attitude it is the single most important investment they can make in their child’s future and who then take time to carefully research the wide range of options are, in reality, the exception.
There’s an old saying in the teaching profession that many parents, despite universally acknowledging the paramount importance of education, spend more time researching their next car or house purchase than they do the best school for their child. Whether or not this is the case, the pandemic and other challenges with public schools have undoubtedly driven more families to consider private education. School-age families relocating to the Tampa area who are interested in something other than public schools enjoy plenty of choice. This is great news for families. However, choosing the right private school can be a bewildering and even overwhelming process. After all, most private schools do an effective job of selling (but not distinguishing) themselves. All you have to do is compare the glossy admissions materials from several to see they essentially promise the same things. So, what’s a parent to do?
Given that the decision to pay for a child’s education is not taken lightly – something every private school must appreciate and respect when asking for ever increasing tuition dollars – how can prospective families see beyond the polished ‘sales pitch’ and identify the best ‘fit’ for their child? Having spent over thirty years teaching in, visiting, accrediting, and leading different private schools in the US and the UK, I believe it is possible for parents to identify a great (as opposed to merely ‘good’) private school by focusing on the following key areas during the research and decision-making process:
- Great schools understand that the single most powerful factor shaping each child’s daily experience is the quality of the classroom teachers the child interacts with and not facilities, school size, or ‘image.’ These schools make sure every decision is made with the interests of the children at the forefront.
- While all private schools promise “academic excellence,” there are in fact varying degrees of academic rigor in schools. The two concepts are different; a great private school provides both and can show parents how.
- A child’s wellbeing is too important to be left solely to the school. Parents should take a “trust and verify” approach to working with teachers and administrators. Great schools welcome, nurture, respect and support this partnership. They also know and nurture every child.
- A school is great when its mission and values closely match those of the family. The professional culture of such a school is one in which every employee models daily the standards of conduct expected of the children.
- In a great school, each child can identify and develop a passion; be it intellectual, artistic, or athletic. They can be celebrated and respected for their unique interests.
There are of course many more practical questions parents should ask themselves and a prospective school when seeking the best environment for their child to thrive. Just a few of the most important ones are: What is the school’s value proposition and is it clearly and consistently evident? Will my child thrive in a ‘big’ private school environment, or do they need the more individualized attention that comes with smaller schools? How important is spiritual formation to our family? Is the school culture one of collaboration or cutthroat competition between students? Perhaps most importantly, is the school truly child-centric and ‘living’ its mission?
No one knows a child better than the parents. Having clear and realistic goals for your child and feeling confident the family-school partnership can and will help your child achieve these goals. Above all else, a private school is great when parents, having done due diligence in the selection process, feel wholly confident entrusting the academic, social, and emotional wellbeing of their child to the school – not to mention the considerable financial sacrifice required. The bottom line? Ask questions. Lots of them. The importance of the right ‘fit’ between family and school cannot be overstated.
I am often asked by St. John’s parents if we would consider expanding the school to include grades 9-12. That the topic has even been raised is greatly appreciated affirmation of the quality of the St. John’s experience. However, my answer is “I hope not.” As surprising as that might seem, here’s why I believe it is the correct response:
I am a strong believer in and proponent of the K(4) - 8 model of schooling as best serving children. That position has been influenced by several factors, including many years in the K-12 school setting, as well as leading two K(4) - 8 schools. The dynamic created when elementary and middle school children are housed on the same campus with high school students is different and not necessarily positive or appropriate for younger children. Contrast that with our K(4) - 8 environment; children who arrive at St. John’s and graduate in 8th grade can be in a stable, caring school community for ten years.
It is widely acknowledged that high school today is very fast-paced and hyper-competitive, with no end in sight. As the Washington Post has reported, “Facing record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, many students feel tremendous pressure to achieve and résumé-build in all aspects of their young lives. In the pressurized ecosystem of high-achieving schools, driven students must out-compete each other for a few coveted spots, whether it’s a seat in AP calculus or a spot on the debate team.”
In 6-12 and K-12 schools this pressure can have a ‘trickle down’ effect on younger children. However, with the intense academic and alarming social pressures of the high school environment removed, children in the K(4) - 8 setting can enjoy all the discovery and precious freedoms of childhood longer. We are deliberate and thoughtful about balancing a very thorough academic program that celebrates and preserves childhood and makes sure that children grow up at the right pace, while being academically prepared for their future.
A multitude of external data supports our school model as being ideal for child development and education. Most research suggests that K(4) ‐ 8 grade configurations promote higher student achievement and some studies indicate these schools help improve student behavioral outcomes, including self‐esteem. This finding may be attributed to the social continuity provided by the K(4) ‐ 8 school environment. A key indicator of student success is parent involvement, which remains steady in K(4) - 8 schools. Opportunities abound for students in a K(4) - 8 school to feel empowered to lead without being overshadowed by older high school students. Test scores may improve as well. In a study conducted by Dr. Robert Offenberg, outcomes (namely reading, math and science SAT scores) of students who attended K(4) - 8 schools were shown to be significantly stronger than 6-12 or K-12 schools. Students from K(4) - 8 schools were 11% more likely to be enrolled in selective high school programs and demonstrated a higher GPA in 9th grade.
As an age 4 through Grade 8 school of just over 500 students, St. John’s can provide many advantages beyond academic rigor: students experience fewer transitions, they develop long-term relationships with teachers and friends, and there is a wide range of opportunities for students to make their voices heard and advance their leadership skills in every division. We know that even very young children can practice these skills and have meaningful opportunities to develop them early on.
Middle school isn’t easy, and it is during these critical developmental years that the advantages of the K(4) - 8 setting are most evident. Research published in the American Educational Research Journal demonstrates that when middle schoolers have the "top dog" status at school (8th grade), they feel safer, report fewer disciplinary instances, and perform better academically than students in 6-12 and K-12 schools.
St. John’s middle school students are nurtured in an environment that puts their developmental needs at the center. As role models for the rest of the school, our 8th graders rise to the occasion without having to wait until high school for the chance to think as a leader. Not surprisingly, all of this is confirmed by the excellent outcomes our graduates enjoy. Last year, 92% of our 8th graders were accepted into their ‘first choice’ private high school. A five-year analysis of highly selective grade 9 admissions outcomes for our 8th graders reveals similarly outstanding results, with overall acceptance rates actually higher than those of families trying to join the same schools before 9th grade. The most compelling data of all? The testimonies of our graduates, who continue to report how well-prepared they were for the high school of their choice, and how well they fare in relation to fellow students who have been at the school longer.
I love the welcoming and authentic nature of our school, as much as I do our mission-driven belief in children and the sanctity of childhood. We are the antithesis of private school elitism. Pat Bassett (former head of the National Association of Independent Schools) identified four specific traits critical to student success: a small school with an intimate environment and strong sense of community; class sizes that are not too small but not too big; great teachers (as determined by high IQ and high EQ), and supportive parents. If that sounds familiar, it's because Bassett is describing the ‘secret sauce’ that makes St. John’s so special. Go to high school? No thanks. To add a 9-12 program would fundamentally alter the experience of the younger children, and for no demonstrable or proven good. Our graduates already excel at the public or private high school of their choice. Besides, I like the St. John’s model - school as it should be - just the way it is.
Knowing the Answer Will Help You Choose a Great School
There is one core measure to consider above all others when choosing a school for your child: each child’s daily experience. And the most powerful factor shaping that experience is not facilities, school size, or image.
It’s the quality of the teachers who interact with your child.
I’m pleased to work with many great educators at St. John’s Episcopal School (SJE). Over the course of 30 years in the teaching profession—both as classroom teacher and leader at schools in this country and England—I’ve had the good fortune to work with hundreds of teachers.
A few have been poor. Many have been mediocre. But most, thankfully, have been good or truly great. In my experience, outstanding teachers exhibit “common characteristics of greatness,” and at SJE, we actively recruit faculty based on these characteristics.
When you move to a new city, knowing these characteristics can help you choose a great school.
CHARACTERISTICS OF GREATNESS
The two most important are:
- They find great joy and meaning in their work
- They demonstrate love of working with children
Then, in no particular order, are these.
- Have subject expertise
- Understand their role and take responsibility for it
- Are committed to “lifelong learning” and continuous improvement
- Have high expectations for students—and even higher for themselves—and model these behavioral standards daily
- Desire always to be fair, even if not always consistent
- Have a positive attitude and healthy perspective. They know they’re fortunate to work with children, and it shows in their interactions with others
- Are “brand ambassadors” who speak positively about where they work
- Know rules are important, but the children are more important
- Understand the classroom’s power dynamic and ensure their power is used solely for the children’s benefit
- See parents as valued partners, and demonstrate this in the way they work and communicate
- Embrace accountability, even as they cherish autonomy
- Leave each child knowing that they’re “on his or her side”
- Want to work with other great educators, and are contemptuous of mediocrity
Our culture of continuous improvement underpins our ongoing work to identify, recruit, and retain the best available teachers. Private education is a major investment in your child’s future. At SJE, parents are valued partners in everything we do.
- Clear sense of mission and identity – what we stand for and what we do not stand for.
- Longstanding, continued tradition of ‘academics first’ while the larger education world (state-run and private) has steadily moved more towards an ‘equal portions’ philosophy or different priorities approach.
- Our philosophy and approach is grounded in ‘whole child’ education but never at the expense of academic rigor and outstanding academic preparation. Outstanding academics is what St. John’s has always been known for and always will be.
- Dedicated campus settings that cater to and support the developmental needs of children and allow them to flourish in their own space without the distraction of older children.
- Stopping at Grade 8 - The presence of high schoolers creates a very different dynamic and can shape a very different experience for younger children.
- School is purposefully sized to meet the needs of each child. Schools can be too big or too small. The bigger the school, the greater the prospect of an institutionalized culture and standardized experience for the child and family.
- We serve our families not the other way around. Parents should never surrender the teaching of values to a school – they should actively and appropriately collaborate with the school to reinforce those values.
- Transparency matters. We see ourselves as partnering with parents – children’s most influential teachers – not replacing or undermining them or their family values.
- Not fad-driven. We do not react to the ‘latest greatest thing’ in education. Instead, we take the time to research it carefully and determine how it would demonstrably improve teaching and learning.
- Open lines of communication between students, teachers and parents
- We believe in children and the sanctity of childhood as something to be protected.
- We know the ‘secret sauce’ – the most critical elements for student and school success (research supported):
- Small school with intimate environment
- Classes not too small and not too big
- Great teachers (High IQ & EQ)
- Supportive Parents
- A distinguishing characteristic of our school is that we integrate religious and spiritual formation into the overall curriculum and life of our school community.
- We are clear, yet graceful, about how we articulate and express our basic identity, especially in our religious curricula and traditions.
- We invite all who attend and work in the school—Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians, Christians and non-Christians, people of no faith tradition—both to seek clarity about their own beliefs and religions and to honor those traditions more fully and faithfully in their own lives.
- Above all, we exist not merely to educate, but to demonstrate and proclaim the unique worth and beauty of all human beings as creations of a loving, empowering God.