This summer, three of Miami-Dade’s top private schools welcomed new heads of schools — Gulliver Schools, Palmer Trinity and Ransom Everglades. While all three mentioned getting acclimated as one of their goals for the upcoming school year, the new leaders discussed not teaching for the first time, the communities that surround them and the challenge of preparing students for an evolving workforce.
Each school is different, obviously, but what makes them stand out? At Palmer, students have the opportunity to run coral labs and participate in study abroad programs. At Gulliver, its preparatory and International Baccalaureate programs begin in elementary school. And at Ransom, which sits off Biscayne Bay, knowing how to sail is a graduation requirement.
Here, then, is a look at the three new heads of school:
Frank Steel, 55, spent 32 years at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia before joining Gulliver in July.
Steel is the first non-Krutulis family member to run the school in Gulliver’s 60-year history. Marian Cline Krutulis, a star student at Miami Edison High, bought a small elementary school in Coconut Grove from Arthur Gulliver in 1953 and transformed it into a top college prep school over the 43 years she ran it. Her son John, now the director of Gulliver, followed her as head of school when she stepped down in 2007. Marian passed away last year.
“When you say Mrs. K, everybody bows. She started Gulliver as a very small elementary school and built it into an amazing enterprise,” said Steel. “You should never take that lightly. I’m not daunted, but I’m humbled and respectful about the task in front of me.”
Although Gulliver, which has about 2,200 students across four campuses, is twice the size of Springside, Steel said the Gulliver community is part of what attracted him to the position.
“One of the things I liked was the warmth of the community,” he said.
The issues and challenges he’s facing are transferable, he said, such as improving education, servicing students and families, and increasing student engagement.
“What do you want the Gulliver graduate to do? What kinds of things do we want teachers assessing? We’re going to spend some time understanding what we do and how we do it, thinking about students’ futures and what they need to be successful,” Steel said.
He plans on using technology to enhance students’ understanding, and cited classroom management programs as an example. While interviewing for the position at Gulliver, he used a classroom management program that enabled him to ask his history class at Springside three questions. Each student had to answer originally and give three responses to other students. Without the program, the 50 students in his class wouldn’t have had the time to complete the assignment in one period.
“I’m a believer that technology is very important,” he said.
Steel is looking at expanding language programs, starting a robotics program and enacting a “bring your own device” policy. He hopes to be at Gulliver for at least 10 years.
“This isn’t a stepping stone,” he said. “When I was talking to parents, one of my big goals was to understand differences. I think it’s really important to come in with some ideas, but not with a blueprint of what we’re going to do. Our students are going to have jobs that don’t exist yet.”
That awareness and ability to look forward is what makes Steel a good fit, said Juan Carlos Garcia, Gulliver’s International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme coordinator.
“One of the things that struck me is how perceptive he is,” Garcia said. “He’s very astute in seeing things that have to be done. What will the mid-21st century look like, and how can we as teachers predict and go in that direction?”
PALMER TRINITY SCHOOL
The first thing you see when you pull into Palmer Trinity’s driveway is a row of flags that represent the diversity of the school’s student body — something that appealed to the new head of school, Patrick Roberts, 45.
Roberts, who left Battleground Academy in Nashville, a K-12 day school, as associate head of school and head of advancement, said he’s enjoying the adjustment to Miami.
“[Palmer] is a link to the international side of Miami. You might not expect that,” he said. “This is truly an international city. That’s new to me. Miami has a rhythm all of its own.”
Roberts won’t be teaching, coaching or advising this school year, a first for him. “I’m going to find ways to be with the kids — both formally and informally. We’re using this year to let me get settled in.”
In addition to maintaining and improving academics, Roberts said he will focus also on improving character development through mentoring. First, though, the school will kick off a strategic plan, go through re-accreditation and continue focusing on the school’s expansion, a much-debated, litigated and drawn-out process with Palmetto Bay.
“We’re always trying to strengthen the core of the school and what we do,” Roberts said. “I was so impressed by our kids. They are mature, well-spoken, kind.”
He plans to continue to send the message of good character, kindness and being polite. The school’s involvement in Breakthrough Miami, an enrichment program that provides underprivileged Miami-Dade County middle and high school students academic support and mentoring, is one example. (Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, Miami Country Day, Ransom Everglades and the University of Miami also partner with Breakthrough.)
“We’re not isolated in Palmetto Bay. Our students need to know that. It certainly is significant and something we’re proud of,” he said. “I love the diversity of this role no matter what school it is.”
As head of advancement in Nashville, Roberts worked on two projects — an athletic and wellness center, and a fine arts center — similar to what he’s been working on this summer. Palmer is opening a multi-purpose dance studio and completing major renovations to its gymnasium.
“We’re growing so fast. There’s a feeling that it’s like a college campus,” said Suzanne Calleja, director of strategic communications and community relations.
STEPHANIE ‘PENNY’ TOWNSEND
RANSOM EVERGLADES SCHOOL
Stephanie “Penny” Townsend’s office sits in the Pagoda — the green, Dade County pine building that dates to 1902, a year before Paul Ransom founded the Adirondack-Florida school for boys in Coconut Grove, which would become Ransom.
Old letters hang on the walls, as well as a wooden plaque that frames the wooden wall next to the stone fireplace, stating, “Obedience to the unenforceable,” Ransom’s motto for more than 100 years.
It seems as if Townsend, 57, is already at home walking around campus. She was the head of school at the Pennington School in Pennington, N.J., where she spent seven years teaching Spanish. She’s excited to use her language skills in Miami.
“We have a lot of kids who use Spanish at home. It’s a different way of entering the community,” Townsend said. “It gives you an advantage not everyone has, especially when you think about the people in Miami who don’t speak Spanish.”
Townsend is planning on getting to know the culture and community surrounding Ransom so that she can “create the portrait of the graduates” in a rapidly changing world.
“You have to create the community that reflects the greater, democratic community. Where does technology fit in? What is this world going to look like? We have kids who are very engaged in academics. The possibilities are limitless,” she said.
Townsend said she will look at how to use technology responsibly — where online learning doesn’t define the curriculum, but augments it.
“There’s a lot of power to technology,” she said. “That’s certainly one of the big debates right now.”
Townsend, a kayaker, said she faces another challenge at Ransom: learning how to sail.
“I love the outdoors, and this is an outdoorsy place,” she said.
Sailing is a graduation requirement, which makes sense given that the school’s upper campus, grades nine through 12, sits on Biscayne Bay’s shoreline in Coconut Grove, off Main Highway. The middle school campus is nearby at South Bayshore Drive.
Claude Grubair, Ransom’s director of athletics, said it makes the school stand out.
“All of the kids have this skill to be on the water for the rest of their lives. They love it,” he said.
Grubair said he recently went on a retreat with Townsend and other administrators, which lasted from early in the morning to late at night. They expected it to be long and grueling, but it was exactly the opposite.
“She’s very dynamic. I would say she’s energized our campus. Ransom is a great institution. I think she understands that. She’s there to build on its greatness,” he said. “I think Penny’s exactly what we needed at exactly the right time.”