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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Arcane Expertise

Updated: Jan 31

Before I became a head of school, one of my mentors told me that I would become expert in a couple of subjects for which my previous experiences had not prepared me, subjects that would likely be several layers removed from educating children. I had arrived at headship the classic way, from the classroom, to junior then senior administration, all roles that were almost entirely focused on kids, teachers, instruction, student life, parents. Over the years, head friends have shared with me some of their niche areas of expertise: church canon law, avalanche conditions, harbor safety regulations, copyright and ASCAP licensing, aldermanic city government navigation, to name a few. For me, it was neighbors.

Forsyth School's extraordinary neighbors were essential elements of the program. With almost 500 people on a little over 3 acres, Forsyth was bounded on one edge by Forest Park, twice the size of Central Park, and filled with trails, carefully maintained ecological zones, golf courses, an open air ice skating rink and many of the city's cultural resources--zoo, art museum, science center, history museum, all free, thanks to the 19th century industrial tycoons who endowed them. On another edge of campus, Washington University. The art teacher's classroom looked across the street at Washington University's Kemper Museum of Art where the students were often invited by the curator, a personal friend of the teacher. Students and faculty attended activities at the University's Edison Theater and the Brown School of Social Work. I inherited a membership at the University faculty club, Whittemore House, where we sometimes held faculty celebrations and took donors to lunch. Each year, we honored Martin Luther King Day by walking, about 450 of us, to Graham Chapel, in the center of Washington University's campus, where the older students yearly prepared a program. King had spoken there in 1952. Teachers walked students to the Missouri History Research Library to examine primary documents.The advantage of this location to the school's program is hard to overestimate. The kinds of activities for which other schools had to organize buses and sack lunches, we could do any day, often on a whim. Early on, I discovered that much of this unbelievably rich programming depended on ad hoc relationships that could walk out the door when the teacher or administrator who owned them left the school. Over time, we became more planful about stewarding relationships with our neighbors by assigning responsibility, identifying relationship successors, expanding our network by meeting our friends' friends, finding ways to reciprocate, and letting our neighbors know--at a time when we weren't asking for a favor--how much we appreciated them.

Some of our neighbor relations--and I owned almost all of these--had existential importance. Washington University cyclically tried to buy our campus and help us move elsewhere. Likewise, we also tried to position ourselves to buy contiguous properties when they became available--in a neighborhood where properties sold within weeks, well above asking price, and for which we competed with a university with a $10B endowment. In order to complete new construction or renovation, it was critical to have strong relationships with municipal officials, and because the city/county line ran through campus, that meant two sets of aldermen, two mayors, and one extraordinarily powerful neighborhood association. We banded together with the other institutional neighbors--the University, several churches, the University's Hillel and Catholic Student Center--to share resources and to protect our interests because institutional members of the neighborhood association did not have a vote. We invited neighbors for parent education events, hosted neighborhood block parties, even held a wedding reception for members of the Seventh Day Adventist church next door, from whom we also leased parking space.

To a degree, neighbors occupy some portion of every head's time and energy, but for me they were central to the school's program and culture and to its continued existence. My predecessor had done a fantastic job in building this network and passing it along to me, and it was one of those areas where I felt very keenly my moment in the school's history and how important it was to hand over to my successor a robust and growing set of relationships with these critical neighbor partners.

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