Coconut Grove

Ransom Everglades’ incoming head of school vows to build on legacy, culture

Penny Townsend (at left)  has been named as new head of school at Ransom Everglades, she will replace the retiring Ellen Moceri (at right). The women are standing in front the Pagoda, the original building on the campus, on Thursday September 12, 2013.
Penny Townsend (at left) has been named as new head of school at Ransom Everglades, she will replace the retiring Ellen Moceri (at right). The women are standing in front the Pagoda, the original building on the campus, on Thursday September 12, 2013.

Ellen Moceri is living up to a promise she made to her husband 21 years ago when the couple lived in St. Louis.

Moceri, the head of Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, had turned 50 and had held leadership positions for 25 years at John Burroughs School in St. Louis. She was on the way to becoming the head of the upper school at the American School of The Hague and Horace Mann School in the Bronx.

Moceri’s husband, Lawrence, an English department chairman in the suburban public schools of St. Louis, took early retirement. Lawrence agreed to follow his wife to New York under one stipulation: She must retire at 70 and agree to move back to their beloved St. Louis.

That journey took a bit longer. Moceri eventually landed at Ransom Everglades in Coconut Grove and has served as its head of school for 13 years. She will retire at the end of this school year; Stephanie (Penny) Townsend, head of school at the Pennington School in New Jersey, will take over on July 1.

“I’ll be 71. I got another year out of him,” Moceri said, chuckling. “I have no idea what retirement means because I am a highly energetic person and will be as helpful as I can for as long as I can.”

Indeed, Moceri knows busy. Under her leadership Ransom has renovated the middle school, built a new Aquatic Center at the upper school and has boosted its endowment from $8 million to more than $25 million. Enrollment has grown by 200 students and 19 percent of its graduates, or about one in five, are accepted into Ivy League colleges.

“We’ve created a whole new approach to college counseling. Every one of my college counselors has had experience on the admission committee of a college,” Moceri said.

“I’d like to have said that I reinvigorated the mission of the school,” said Moceri, who has worked as an educator in independent schools for 48 years. “We were founded by Paul Ransom and he felt our graduates should have a sense of service. They are in the world not for what they can get out of it but what they can put in to it. My philosophy mirrored his. Private schools should have the same priorities. We have resources; we should share them. This wasn’t talked about as much before I got here.”

Founded in 1903, Ransom has 1,064 students split between its middle and upper school Coconut Grove campuses. Tuition is $30,000 per year but the school offers need-based financial aid. “We’ve tripled our financial aid; the average grant is $23,000,” Moceri said.

Ransom’s run under Moceri hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy in Atlanta, chaired a committee overseeing Ransom’s accreditation review a few years ago. “Ransom enjoys a national, if not an international, reputation. The school is a standard-bearer in college prep nationally and regarded for its extracurricular approach and strength in athletics and the arts and the quality of its facilities. Ellen is largely responsible both for what Ransom Everglades looks like today as well as for its national reputation. She’s a passionate advocate for college prep education.”

Gulley also is a strong supporter of Townsend.

“My first thought was, ‘That was an inspired choice.’ What she has done at Pennington is outstanding and she’s the appropriate person to succeed in the footsteps Ellen is leaving behind,” he said.

Townsend, 56, cited Miami-Dade’s multicultural community and Moceri’s work at Ransom as some of her reasons for taking the position.

“I knew about Ellen and met her at a head of schools’ retreat in 2007 and had heard of Ransom Everglades. The way she talked about the school caught my attention,” Townsend said.

She added that the offer, a unanimous decision by an 11-member search committee of faculty, administrators, parents, alumni and trustees, was the “most thrilling opportunity of my life. It’s a great community, an ambitious group. Education is moving fast and there are a lot of changes and you need the resources, the energy and the enthusiasm. Teachers have to be flexible and learn how this technology will change us in this 21st century. I’ll be 57 when I get there and I wanted to have one last go at working as the head of an institution with a passionate administration and passionate students.”

Prior to her work at Pennington, Townsend’s career included several key positions at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. Her work history impressed William Holly, a Class of 1986 Ransom graduate and member of the search committee.

“She spent 23 years at Taft School and that was big for me. She understood academic excellence and how complicated it is and how many different things go into providing academic excellence,” said Holly, president of Pointe Group Advisors, a commercial real estate brokerage.

“She really got the community here and the mission of the school honoring excellence. It is a private school with a public purpose and she got the purpose. She understood the Miami community and is bilingual and understood the multicultural nature of our community and that is a tremendous strength.”

Townsend graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1979 with a bachelor’s in History, specializing in Latin American Studies, and earned her master’s at Middlebury College in Vermont in Spanish Language and Literature.

“I am passionate about Spanish. I lived in Spain. I’ve always been a Spanish teacher,” she said. “I knew early on I was not good at math and science and, for me, the joy of learning another language, and then having the culture to connect to, all made sense to me. When you can share their language you can get to know a whole other culture.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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