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Interview with Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III

Interview with Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III

 
 
Board member Margaret E. Lehman with Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III  
and Philip S. Sassower, Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

During the summer of 2012, Frank J. Carnabuci III completed his twentieth year as Headmaster of The Birch Wathen Lenox School.  In April he was interviewed by BWL parent Paulette Kranjac P’14, mother of Dane Kranjac ’14, about his experiences as an educator in independent schools, and his reflections on the future of education. The transcript of the interview follows:

PK: Mr. Carnabuci, as you complete 20 years of significant service at BWL, I am honored to be able to interview you today. Can you please tell us about yourself, why you chose education as your field, and describe the journey that brought you to BWL?

FJC: Thank you, Paulette. I have always had a longstanding interest in the transformational effect that teaching has and a deeply-rooted interest in psychology; I have a degree in psychology (as well as two Master’s Degrees in education), and my initial interest was to work in a role in admissions and college counseling, which I did at The Dalton School for eleven years.

I realized that in order to make a profound impact on education, I needed to hold an executive role within a school to implement leadership and change. This was sort of a circuitous route for me, because I had enjoyed the one-on-one discussions and getting to know the individual, trying to get a sense of what would they need for them to grow. I realized that to really have an impact on education, you have to progress from doing that individually to having a bigger vision for the student body as a whole, and that interested me quite a bit.

During my last years at Dalton, I became the Assistant Head of the School, responsible for admissions, for all college counseling, and for fundraising, which in those days, back in the 1980s, was a new sort of “industry” in private schools. The thinking was that given my background in admissions, I would have a sense of how to present the mission of the school. I found my new role very fulfilling and wanted to shape that institution. 

Soon afterward, I was contacted when The Birch Wathen School merged with The Lenox School. The schools had some issues, related to enrollment, finances, stability and brand identity. The idea of providing leadership to a new institution, which sought stability, was very thrilling for me both as a professional challenge and was personally rewarding. In a word, I loved the idea of helping the school “get on its feet”, especially a new entity. I felt a sense of purposefulness that was based upon my educational ideals and training at Harvard as well as the “managerial education” and pragmatic experience I had acquired as Assistant Head of The Dalton School. 

I relied upon the theoretical and philosophical foundation that I achieved at The Harvard School of Education. A number of faculty members there had profound influence on my education, and continue to inform my decision-making. For instance, Dr. Roland Barth, a professor and former principal in Newton Centre, Massachusetts; Dr. Howard Gardner, who developed the theory of multiple intelligences—including emotional intelligence, which we rely on so heavily today; and Dr. Nathan Glazer, renowned sociologist and author of The Urban Villagers. I have also been inspired by other school heads and administrators: Stuart Johnson of St. Bernard’s School, Mark Mullin of St. Albans School, and Patricia Howard of Greenwich Academy. The interplay of this philosophical education with my experiential background at Dalton gave me a wonderful introduction to the leadership of an independent school.

 
Neil P. Benedict, Member of the Board of Trustees,  
with Headmaster Frank J. Carnabuci III.

PK: It is lovely to learn about your educational philosophy and vision through the years, and I am curious about your idea of teaching being transformational. It sounds like the moment of transformation, when there’s an epiphany, where someone actually learns something, and then there’s a change, is really what excites you. Can you speak a little to that on a personal level? 

FJC: The first thing that comes to mind is the course I have taught to Fifth graders called Protocol. It’s largely a guide to modern etiquette that I think is essential for children in the society in which we live. In my generation, this was something that was done at home. It’s done less so today at home—I’m not critical of parents for not getting around to it. I think we’re leading busy lives. Now both parents are working, they’re working hard and working long hours.  I believe that school has the responsibility to prepare children for life, not only intellectually, not only in terms of their skill set and literacies, but also in terms of how to interact in a way that opens every possible opportunity for them in the future.

I would be terribly disappointed if our students went to college and had never written a thank you note, and didn’t know which fork to use at dinner, or how to introduce two people who didn’t know each other. I want our students to have every opportunity to experience life. With useful skills, more doors are opened to them.

One of the things that I’ve been interested in instilling in children in this age group and adolescence is the importance of civility.

PK: That was my next question: The values that BWL has branded on banners, in weekly assemblies, and in classroom discussions—the principles of loyalty, civility and integrity. Can you give an example of how these values affect learning? 

FJC: Starting with civility, it’s part of the motto of the School, but it also happens to be a personal value for me. When you talk to students and see in them the transformation that I have described: from not really knowing much about manners and how to connect with others, and then being excited when they understand why it’s important, that is very gratifying. The children come back to me the next day smiling and say, “I told my mom, this is how to introduce two people.” It’s clear that you’ve given them a little bit of guidance, that they’re a little better equipped to succeed socially, whether they are over at a friend’s house, or at a dinner at the White House, they’re a little more self-confident, a little more prepared. I love the idea that our school played a role in preparing children for life.

PK: Did you have that type of transformational experience when you were growing up? And how do you see this impact on your choice to become an educator?

FJC: Yes, I did. In high school and in college I studied two foreign languages, French and Russian. Learning a foreign language, being able to read literature in a foreign language, was for me a passport of sorts. A way to know, growing up in a suburb, a way for me to see and experience the world beyond a protected, sheltered life—to have a connection to the larger world. And that to me was thrilling, and it continues to be thrilling.

One of the most exciting experiences I had was when I was in third grade. We’re talking about the early 1960s, and my parents bought me a transatlantic radio. It was this very heavy big thing that enabled me to hear broadcasts from Europe. At that time, before today’s 24-hour news cycle, it was considered cutting-edge technology. I listened to a broadcast from London about the Berlin Wall in 1962…much the same as the excitement that we have today with the Internet—the fact that you could turn this thing on and hear a news broadcast from a foreign country—was absolutely thrilling for me. I thought: my life has begun! 

What excites me the most is the idea that you can bring the big world into your own life, and I wanted to be able to make this type of experience available for children; as for me this defined my own education. Being connected to what was happening in the broader world, I really felt that I was part of history unfolding. I believe that the students in my Political Union class today have the same enthusiasm that I am describing.

It is especially exciting and a privilege too, to have been an educator now and at BWL for the past twenty years and to serve the K through twelve grades.  I’ve seen many children begin here in Kindergarten. In so short a time it seems, I am meeting them as five-year-olds, and then watching them go off to college. It is dazzling to see the transformation, to see these children coming here to acquire academic skills when they’re five. They leave reading and as fine writers, and articulate and eloquent young people, who know so much about the world.

When you find something that is so exciting, you’ve got to do it and have it in your life. This is something that our School also tries to put forward and why we have such a diversity of courses and offerings. We want our students to love what they are studying and learning and we encourage that they zero in on what they are interested in. 

PK: Getting back to the idea of stability and the attributes of integrity, loyalty and civility and the vision that you have for students—how were these values chosen for the School motto?

FJC: About 15 years ago we surveyed the faculty and asked them to identify values that most reflected and were most emblematic of the culture of the School. It wasn’t a scientific survey, not everyone replied. But these were the words that came up most frequently. The Banner Guard presents these values on their banners at important ceremonies as a reminder of the ethos and essence of the School.

PK: Do you think those would be the same values that would come up today? And how are those principles taught at BWL?

FJC: Yes, because at the end of the day, to educate brilliant children, to send them off to top colleges and not emphasize character: integrity, loyalty, civility—to not emphasize those personal qualities—is an incomplete education. If you’re the best student in the world, going off to the best college in the world, and you don’t possess integrity, and you’re not loyal to your friends, and you’re rude and not civilized, what kind of person are you? The idea of an adult without a strong character is inconsistent with an excellent education. I think that the emphasis on character has always been a basic tenet of our school, in addition to the academics.

I do believe that these values are “caught rather than taught.” I think we hire people who reflect those values. I don’t think you teach honesty, nor stand in front of first graders and say, “here is what honesty means.” We try and model good will and loyalty. Civility is taught in the technical sense, but children are very keen observers of how adults relate. If I’m speaking to you in a particular tone, with a high level of respect, our children will assimilate it. I don’t know that these things are taught the way we teach math. I think we demonstrate them and exemplify them. Again, there are some technical things, but hopefully these things are instilled in a more subliminal manner and children leave here with those things part of their character. Even if or when the children make human errors, it is within the context of kindness that we create at BWL that we address things that come up and support character growth. Also, our community service program is a wonderful way to teach loyalty—to your city, to your neighbors.

PK: When Birch Wathen and Lenox merged, how did you begin to grow BWL into what it is today?

FJC: I realized that relationships are the most important aspect of growth. 

For example, what I did in the first summer was to establish a tradition that we’re still engaged with today. I focused on building relationships with the nursery school heads, to encourage applications for admission. We used an annual luncheon as a forum to promote the School. This was unique at the time and we could really see the rewards, and the importance of building these relationships early on to help us communicate our vision of the new BWL.  I have also been fortunate to have strong ongoing relationships with the members of the BWL Board of Trustees, who continue to demonstrate their profound dedication to the School. I am most grateful for the unwavering support of the Trustees over the years. All of us at BWL benefit from the collective talent of our very skilled Board leaders: Philip Sassower, Margaret Lehman, Neil Benedict and Stephen Cooper.

PK: What strengths do you look for in your teachers and in your students?

FJC: It’s very important to allow teachers to develop their own curriculum, and it’s most important to have a teacher with a passion for his/her subject that can be conveyed to the students. We promote lots of opportunities for professional advancement so that our teachers stay inspired: workshops, conferences, courses. Our salaries are competitive so that we can attract and retain top teachers. In students, we look for qualities that go beyond test scores. Many of our students thrive with the individual attention of smaller reading and math groups. We are able to provide smaller groups, but we don’t want to be too small—we don’t want to have less than 550 students.

PK: How is BWL’s “brand” changing, or its external perception

FJC: We used to be perceived as a “safety” school but that is no longer the case. We are now flourishing as a coed, traditional, K through 12 school, due to our unique combination of traditional academics and an uncommon focus on nurturing the individual. 

PK: How is BWL positioned to prepare students for today’s global economy?

FJC: We are putting more emphasis on science through our ongoing Science Initiative, which began in 2011 and has continued to build. Last year, a Sixth Grade student completed a fascinating independent study project about the origins of the universe, and this is just the first of a number of independent study projects that students will undertake this year, with Upper School students conducting university level research on topics ranging from photovoltaic cell development to borderline personality disorders. We are continuing to offer our advanced Science Round Table course in the Middle School, and we are bringing accomplished women scientists to speak at the School through the highly successful Women in Science Education program. In the Lower School, we are developing two new units in the Fourth and Fifth Grades, in conjunction with faculty at two major universities. The Fourth Grade will study environmental issues with the input of faculty from Columbia University, and the Fifth Grade will work with a consultant from Middlebury College on a neuroscience unit. These are just a few examples of the exciting new developments in science that are currently unfolding. In addition, we are placing more emphasis on Mathematics, such as the new Singapore Math program in the Lower School.

PK: What do you feel are your three main accomplishments as Headmaster?

FJC: As I mentioned earlier, restoring the status of the School enrollment became my first priority as Headmaster of Birch Wathen Lenox in 1992. Today we have many applications for every spot, and increasingly, we are a first choice school. In addition, during the past two years, we have seen top students from the most competitive schools, seeking to transfer to BWL for its unique philosophy. This is proof, I believe, of the second accomplishment: that we have successfully created a new identity that is BWL—a brand that continues to grow and develop. Finally, through our commitment to nurturing individual talent, I feel we have been able to continue to give educational opportunities to students who have amazing attributes, which indicate enormous potential that may not be reflected with test scores.

\PK: In your opinion, what does the future hold for learning and education?

FJC: I think that two dynamics will emerge in the next decade that will change how we teach and how we learn. Obviously technology evolves every day, and will enable us to individualize the learning experience even further. I do think that social media will become more refined, with the potential to be used in the classroom. Social media expands access to teachers all around the world, in real time, or in near real time. Students can engage in fieldwork and participate in group projects with children all over the world. At the moment, many people consider social media to be a disruption or a distraction. But I believe that the potential of social media as a resource for us to gather and share data quickly is significant. For example, a student may soon be able to go to YouTube and watch five different teachers teach, in five different ways, the process of oxidation in Chemistry—which could augment the one way his classroom teacher is instructing. Recently a teacher in Canada found an unknown animal skeleton, photographed it, and placed it on Facebook. Within thirty minutes, it was identified. The power of social media is boundless, and will, in a fruitful, productive way, enhance—not replace—the classroom experience.

I think the second dynamic is that we’re going to see the collaborative process in education emerge in a more meaningful way. We’re going to see teachers collaborate more, and students collaborate more, on projects and experiments. I think collaboration boosts achievement for all. When children and teachers in groups share information and connect with others, the result is powerful. They can test new ideas, they can learn new facts, and they can learn to gauge the opinions of others.

In a personal sense, the idea of groups converging through the collaborative process seems transformational—similar to my own discovery of the power of international broadcast after I received the transatlantic radio. That discovery gave me a different perspective than someone would have had a generation earlier. Today’s students can harness the collaborative process with the new technology of social media. The interplay of these two experiences, in my opinion, will represent the future of learning and teaching.

PK: It was a pleasure to learn more about you and BWL and your contributions here. Congratulations on the wonderful accomplishments you have made in your 20 years as Headmaster.

   

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